Tuesday hosted a night of disbelief for the NHL when both the New York Islanders and Columbus Blue Jackets swept their first-round playoff opponents. Four straight wins, and not a single game ending in their opponents’ favors.
It’s shocking to see the Pittsburgh Penguins, who faced the Islanders in the first round, make such an early exit. Since the team’s memorable 2012 first-round loss to their rivals, the Philadelphia Flyers, the team had only lost in the first round once — 4-1 in the 2015 playoffs against the New York Rangers.
Pittsburgh countered that short and underwhelming postseason by winning the Stanley Cup the following two years with matching 4-2 series wins.
The Penguins have made it to the postseason for the past 13 years. With a second-round appearance in the 2018 playoffs, it’s become a habit to expect them to make some kind of a playoff run each postseason.
Except that’s not what they did this year. Instead, they were shut down, and shut out, in a 4-0 series sweep by the Islanders.
While yes, this is surprising in the sense that the Penguins typically hold a larger presence in the postseason, it’s unsurprising that the Islanders were able to defeat them, as previously discussed here on Behind the Glass.
But while Pittsburgh’s early loss caused a stir, the Tampa Bay Lightning’s loss to the Blue Jackets caused a storm. The 2018-19 Lightning will not be forgotten, but now it’s for the wrong reason.
The Presidents’ Trophy winner, who clinched its playoff spot in early March, held one of the best records in the NHL ever. Yet, Tampa Bay couldn’t get a single win against Columbus, who held the second wildcard spot.
Instead, this series looked like a reflection of the Lightning’s season, except Columbus was playing the role of Tampa Bay. Only one of the Blue Jackets’ wins was by a single goal, when three goals in the third period pulled Columbus away in time to snag a 4-3 win.
That was just the first game.
What followed was a four-goal loss, a two-goal loss and finally another four-goal loss in Columbus’ 7-3 win in Game 4.
Consider the Lightning’s tweet following the game:
We don’t have any words and we know you don’t want to hear them.
We understand your anger, your frustration, your sadness. Everything you’re feeling – we get it.
This isn’t the ending we imagined, and certainly not the one we wanted. Thank you for being there the entire way.
— Tampa Bay Lightning (@TBLightning) April 17, 2019
This was comical and strange enough to make you feel like this was more an episode of “The Twilight Zone” and less The Actual Stanley Cup Playoffs. Everyone, including Tampa Bay, knows this team was not supposed to make such a bad exit after such a historic season.
But is it really that surprising?
Sure, I too had them winning the cup in my bracket because why not go with the safe bet, the team that has dominated the league this entire season? I’m not going to sit here and say I knew this was coming because I definitely didn’t.
All I’m going to say is that Columbus took a risk at the trade deadline, and with that risk the team had something major to prove: that they weren’t trading away all of those draft picks for nothing more than self-sabotage.
The Blue Jackets had a lot to lose heading into the final stretch of this season. After the trade deadline, it was questionable whether or not the team’s risk would pay off.
Not only was the team heading into the postseason in the second wildcard spot with this to prove, they were also going up against one of the best records the NHL had ever seen.
For a team that’s been at the top for a while, it might be hard to switch back into that must-win mentality. But for a team that knows they’re not the favorite to win, they’re already there.
It isn’t a fluke that Columbus is moving on to the second round. The team’s dominant play in this first round earned them that spot and just proves that anything truly is possible in playoff hockey.