If you had told Tampa Bay Lightning fans that the team would eliminate the Columbus Blue Jackets 4-1 before the start of the 2019 Playoffs, the general response wouldn’t have been excitement, but the statement “Wow, the Blue Jackets stole a game…”
Now in 2020, after the Lightning eliminated the Blue Jackets in five games, the response will run the full gambit of emotions. From the excitement of moving on in the playoffs, to the worry about who they will face in Round 2, Tampa Bay will feel it all.
However, the most important thing that the Lightning will feel, from fans to coaches to players, is relief.
Tampa Bay Moving on From Lowest Point
When the Lightning were swept by the Blue Jackets, that created a storyline that they simply couldn’t get past for the entire 2019-20 season. Whenever a team came to town for the first time, they were asked about the sweep. When they were on nationally televised games, the conversation inevitably came back to how one of the best regular-season teams of all time collapsed in the postseason.
Even when the Lightning were in the midst of separate 10 and 11 game winning streaks before the pause, there was always the question of “Yes they are playing well now, but can they win in the playoffs?”
By defeating the Blue Jackets in Round 1, that sort of questioning will start to fade. Finally, the last remnants of their historic meltdown can be cast aside, left to the history books where it belongs.
Lightning vs Blue Jackets Was an All-Time Great Series
With that weight off their shoulders, Lightning fans can now look back and appreciate what was one of the best playoff series in franchise history. Simply put, this had everything that makes for a true classic, even if it only lasted five games.
Every game was a nail-biter, with the Lightning winning four times by just one goal. At times they dominated play, like in Game 3, but in Game 4 they struggled mightily, forcing Andrei Vasilevskiy to bail them out, which he did with aplomb.
No matter how you look at it, Games 1 and 5 are instant classics for the Bolts. Between the 5OT marathon to start the series and the come-from-behind victory to end it, those moments will always be remembered by Lightning fans, even if they don’t go on to win the Stanley cup in 2020.
Lightning Are Having Fun in the Playoffs
Another important note about this series was just how much fun it was. Unlike in 2019, which was more crushing than anything else, Round 1 featured everything that makes the sport great for Lightning fans.
Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point showcased why they are true stars of the NHL, while other franchise faces like Tyler Johnson, Victor Hedman, and Alex Killorn contributed needed goals in key moments. Role player Yanni Gourde was, arguably, the best all-around player not named Point, with his linemates Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman showcasing why the Lightning gave up so much at the trade deadline for their services.
Also, Vasilevskiy stepped up his game after a letdown in 2019. For years he has been a Vezina-caliber goalie, but this is the first time in a while where he really showcased his full skills, stealing meaningful games in the playoffs. If this level of play continues, the Lightning will have a chance to win against whoever their next opponent is.
Just a First, but Meaningful, Step for the Lightning
I know as a fan of both the Lightning and hockey, I was worried about how hockey would feel during the COVID-19 pandemic. There was no certainty that the bubble would work for players, and even if it did, it felt like everything was setting up for the Bolts to stumble once again.
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After Round 1, I feel confident, not just in the Lightning, but in the NHL for how they are handling the playoffs. Does this mean that Tampa Bay will win it all this year? Probably not, as that path ahead is still long and fraught with difficulty. But I do feel confident that the NHL will complete the postseason in 2020.
At the very least, the first few weeks of playoff hockey has been a lot of fun, and it has allowed the Lightning to cast off one of the biggest specters in franchise history.
Eugene Helfrick is a Tampa Bay Lightning writer who is actually from Tampa Bay. He has written about the Lightning for six years, covering everything from their run to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, to their crushing first-round exit in 2019, to their redemption in the bubble in 2020. While he is happy to talk about just about anything from cows to cars to video games, hockey will always remain one of his favorite pastimes.