Two unpredictable sweeps

Not even a week in and two Eastern Conference teams have been sent packing in shocking fashion. Both the President’s Trophy winning Lightning and championship proven Penguins were swept in stirring first round series nobody could have predicted.

Making sense out of it is impossible. Unlike playoff basketball, the NHL Playoffs is unpredictable. Upsets do occur. But it’s rare that you ever see a team like the Tampa Bay Lightning bow out in epic fashion. That’s because it’s never happened before. Never has a top overall seed lost in four straight during Round One. This is unchartered territory for hockey.

Sure. We’ve seen first seeds get bounced out in the first round. It happened to the Blues two decades ago and the Sharks more recently. It’s crazy to think that the Lightning won 62 games and racked up 128 points over 82 games. Now, they’re done. They didn’t even win one game against the Blue Jackets, who made a bit if history of their own by finally reaching the second round. Congrats to John Tortorella’s team. They sure deserve it.

So, what went wrong for Tampa? For starters, they didn’t match the work ethic or grit of the Blue Jackets. In the postseason, you can’t just depend on speed and skill. It doesn’t translate. There has to be some extra effort required. Columbus won the battles in the trenches. They were harder on the puck and stronger defensively. They won most of the loose pucks in the corners. Those 50/50 battles usually are a key determining factor. Torts’ guys were hungrier.

By the time the Lightning showed the kind of urgency they should’ve had at the start, it was too late. They never led after blowing a three goal lead in a costly Game One. The Blue Jackets were the better team, outscoring the Bolts 19-5 after trailing 3-0 in the first period of the series. After holding off Tampa 3-1 the other night, they wrapped it up by taking Game Four 7-3 before a wild environment at home.

Columbus came out on fire by scoring twice in the game’s first four minutes. Rookie Alexandre Texier and Pierre-Luc Dubois tallied 1:22 apart to put the Bolts behind two right away. They were once again chasing the game.

Lightning captain Steven Stamkos finally got his first of the series on a strong move around Seth Jones to go forehand top shelf on Sergei Bobrovsky. Nikita Kucherov set up the goal from Anthony Cirelli. Kucherov was back after serving his one game suspension in Game Three. The Art Ross winner who put up a record 128 points by a Russian player, never scored in the four games. He might take home some hardware at the NHL Awards in June. But it will be bittersweet.

The Blue Jackets could’ve been up more if not for some outstanding work from Andrei Vasilevskiy. He made some remarkable saves to keep his team alive the first two periods. He also got a break when Tampa coach Jon Copper successfully challenged an apparent Blue Jackets power play goal that was offside. Zach Werenski was unable to keep the puck in. That gave the Bolts some life.

Even with Tampa more competitive, they still had trouble getting to Bobrovsky. He was excellent throughout and outplayed his countryman to win his first playoff series.

Jones scored a big goal to put the Jackets back ahead by two. Off some sustained pressure, Matt Duchene made a backhand pass for Cam Atkinson in front. Rather than shoot, he passed for a wide open Jones, who fired a perfect shot top shelf past a screened Vasilevskiy for a 3-1 lead 6:28 into the second.

With the Blue Jackets applying tons of pressure, they went for the knockout. But a sharp Vasilevskiy gave the Lightning every chance to come back. Still trailing by two in the period, they finally got another one past Bobrovsky. Off a Jan Rutta forecheck, Braydon Coburn had his shot redirected by Cedric Paquette off the goalpost and in to cut the deficit to one.

Once again alive, Tampa took advantage of a Werenski cross-check on Kucherov to draw even. Another star player finally broke through. Brayden Point connected on the power play when he took a Stamkos pass in front and scored on a nice backhand short side. Kucherov added his second helper.

But just when it looked like the momentum had shifted, Mathieu Joseph took a bad offensive zone penalty behind the Columbus net. Able to get Bobrovsky off for an extra skater, the Blue Jackets worked the puck around until Dubois found an open Scott Harrington. He was able to pass across for a wide open Bjorkstrand for a rare goal on a delayed penalty. The back breaking goal came with just 1:14 left in the second. Less than a minute after the Bolts had worked hard to tie it.

That’s the kind of series it was. The third period was all about Bobrovsky. A desperate Lightning applied pressure in search of the equalizer. They were thwarted time and time again by Bobrovsky, whose best save came on a redirection that he smothered. He stopped all 13 Tampa shots en route to 30 saves.

Columbus may not have attacked as much. However, they checked well and did a good job clearing the front of the net. That was one of the biggest differences in the series. Their attention to detail resulted in holding Stamkos to a goal and assist, Kucherov to two assists, Point to a goal, and Tyler Johnson to one assist.

Former Ranger Ryan McDonagh had a rough series finishing without a point with a minus-six rating, including a nightmarish minus-four last night. He couldn’t pick up the load for injured star defenseman Victor Hedman. Tampa was also without Anton Stralman for all four games. That didn’t help.

The Blue Jackets methodically defended the Lightning until the bitter end. Artemi Panarin scored an empty netter with 1:53 left to set off the cannon. Nick Foligno mobbed him. Panarin had five points in the series. Duchene led the Jackets with seven points including a third empty netter following Texier’s second of the game.

It all worked for Tortorella’s club, who shook hands with a disappointed opponent that never saw this coming. The best part of the traditional handshake was seeing Bobrovsky and Vasilevskiy meet and have a nice chat before leaving the ice. I’m pretty sure Vasilevskiy told Bobrovsky, ‘Great job. You deserve it.’

Now, Columbus awaits the winner between Boston and Toronto. Depending on what happens in tonight’s Game Four, that series could be very long or surprisingly short. The Leafs lead it two games to one.

The other sweep involved the Islanders taking out the Penguins in convincing fashion. They closed them out by winning Game Four 3-1 at a more quiet PPG Paints Arena.

Pittsburgh finally got some production from superstar Sidney Crosby and top finisher Jake Guentzel. On the opening shift, Crosby set up Guentzel at 35 seconds for a 1-0 Pens lead. It were the only points they had in the stunning sweep.

Much like how it played out, it didn’t take long for the Isles to respond. Jordan Eberle scored his series best fourth from Mat Barzal and Scott Mayfield only 1:34 later. Eberle scored a goal in every game. He finished with six points in the series while playing with Barzal (5 assists) and Anthony Beauvillier (goal/assist). Barzal outplayed his idol in his first taste of the postseason.

As for Eberle, he was acquired from Edmonton prior to ’17-18 for Ryan Strome. The same Strome the Oilers gave up on this past season by dealing him to the Rangers for Ryan Spooner. Oops. Eberle had never had any success in his last NHL postseason with Edmonton. They dumped him. Poetic justice. He’s a unrestricted free agent this summer along with Brock Nelson and Islanders captain Anders Lee. Eberle has made himself some money so far.

Speaking of which, Nelson has continued to deliver clutch goals. On a strong cycle from former Pen Tom Kuhnackl behind the Pittsburgh net, he moved the puck to Bailey, who centered for a Nelson finish in front with 1:54 left in the first. It was Nelson’s third of the series.

That was enough to win. Even on a night the Pens showed more urgency by outshooting the Isles 33-25, they once again had trouble beating Robin Lehner. For the series, Lehner only allowed six goals. He stopped 130 of 136 shots. The big Swede who once was highly thought of in Ottawa and Buffalo, came through for the Islanders. When he wasn’t leaving the Pens shaking their heads, the goalpost was. The Pens hit two posts including Crosby on a wide open rebound. But he sent his backhand off the near post.

Frustration creeped in with Patric Hornqvist finally going after Lehner in the blue paint. He and Lehner nearly came to blows. But it was broken up. They gave Hornqvist the extra two for roughing. The Isles were unable to score on the power play with Matt Murray making some key stops to keep it close.

Barry Trotz’s club continued to defend tightly in front of Lehner. Their grinding style definitely won out in the first round series. The Pens were unable to match their work ethic. When it was over, Pens coach Mike Sullivan talked about how his team struggled to defend. That was true. Even his best defenseman, Kris Letang had a bad series. The scrappier Isles won all the battles and took advantage of every Penguin mistake.

Bailey put it away when off a simple face-off win from Valtteri Filppula, he turned around, wheeled and fired down the ice from 190 feet into a vacated net with 38 seconds remaining. It was fitting that the Game One overtime hero finished off Pittsburgh. He also had a good series winding up with three goals and an assist.

The Islanders’ best players were better than the Penguins’. Evgeni Malkin was invisible the final two games. Phil Kessel couldn’t get anything to go. That included a point blank opportunity he had to tie the game. But a diving Mayfield blocked his shot to save a goal.

From top to bottom, the Isles were the superior team. Even though the popular fourth line of Casey Cizikas, Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck didn’t score a goal in the series, they were good throughout. They were effective on the forecheck, created chances and defended well while adding the physical element.

The shutdown pair of Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock neutralized Crosby and Guentzel. Rookie Devon Toews had a good series. Nick Leddy, Johnny Boychuk and Mayfield all were steady. Everything worked. Now, they will wait to see what happens between the Capitals and Hurricanes. With Carolina responding extremely well by posting a lopsided 5-0 shutout at home in Game Three, that series is 2-1 Washington. Game Four isn’t until Thursday.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the ugly knockout Alexander Ovechkin had on 19-year old rookie Andrei Svechnikov in the first period the other night. They had been going at it throughout the first two-plus games. Unfortunately, Svechnikov made a bad decision challenging Ovechkin to a rare fight. It predictably didn’t end well for the ultra talented Russian. He had to be helped off the ice.

Svechnikov is in concussion protocol. I doubt we’ll get to see him again this postseason. It sucks. I don’t blame Ovechkin. Both agreed to fight. That’s part of The Code. I wish the kid hadn’t done it. Here’s hoping he makes a full recovery and doesn’t have any after effects.

In the other two series out West, the Golden Knights continue to punish the defenseless and goalie less Sharks. They shut them out 5-0 in Game Four to take a commanding 3-1 series lead. Martin Jones has been a nightmare. He was pulled for the second time, giving way to backup Aaron Dell.

Joe Thornton served a one game suspension for his illegal check to the head on Tomas Nosek. San Jose couldn’t get anything past Marc-Andre Fleury, who posted his 15th career postseason shutout. He’s in the top six all-time.

Max Pacioretty had two goals and two assists for Vegas. Mark Stone passed his point total to 10 in the first round. Shea Theodore had a highlight reel goal in which he undressed two Sharks including Brendan Dillon. Erik Karlsson continues to look bad. He’s been on for a lot of goals at five-on-five. I wonder if he’ll ever be the same defenseman. He played on one foot in 2017, nearly carrying Ottawa to the Stanley Cup. He isn’t 100 percent.

On the goal scored by Alex Tuch, he abused Brent Burns and then turned Karlsson around before firing past Dell. Evander Kane lost his brain with a cross check and deliberate punch earning him a misconduct for 14 penalty minutes.

Are the Sharks dead? Game Five is at home. But unless they play better defensively and get improved goaltending, they might not live to see Vegas again for Game Six. I know how this will sound. If he ever changed his mind, Henrik Lundqvist would look pretty good in teal.

In what’s been the best series, Winnipeg got a Kyle Connor goal in sudden death to beat the Blues 2-1 in St. Louis. The road team has won all four games.

Neither team scored in the first two periods. In the third, Vladimir Tarasenko broke the ice with a dart past Connor Hellebuyck for a 1-0 Blues lead. However, Mark Scheifele countered on a Connor rush by redirecting his pass by rookie Jordan Binnington.

The skating and goaltending was superb. It’s been a tightly fought series that’s included some heavy hits. Tarasenko delivered a big one on Blake Wheeler during overtime. But he got up and started a rush in the opposite direction that resulted in Connor getting the OT winner from Scheifele. Scheifele had his shot turned aside by Binnington, but he got to the rebound and centered for Connor in front for a tap in.

A pivotal Game Five takes place in Winnipeg on Thursday night at 8:30 PM. That one will be worth watching. It’s too bad it’s a first round series. Only one team will advance.

With Calgary getting shellacked by the Nathan MacKinnon led Avalanche, the Western top seed is in trouble. They desperately need a much better performance in Game Four tonight. Otherwise, both one seeds could go belly up in the first round. So much for my playoff prediction.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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