The Blue Jackets’ bubble has been popped.

After eliminating the Toronto Maple Leafs in the qualifying stage of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Columbus earned an opening round matchup against the Tampa Bay Lightning for a second consecutive year. Last postseason, the Blue Jackets orchestrated a stunning sweep of a historically great Lightning team. 

This year, however, it wasn’t in the cards. The Lightning refused to not strike twice, and Tampa was able to erase Columbus in five games. It was a quick series but make no mistake about it… Columbus put up a great fight. 

So, where did things go wrong? Let’s take a look at some of the reasons why the Blue Jackets are heading home. 

Lightning’s third line dominated

There’s no question that the Lightning are the better team on paper; they boast one of the more complete teams in the entire league. The biggest glaring discrepancy between the clubs might be the top-tier firepower up front — the Lightning have guys like Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point and Steven Stamkos (when healthy), and the Blue Jackets didn’t have a single player with 50 or more points this season. 

But where the Lightning truly separated themselves in this series was their depth — specifically on the third line. Yanni Gourde, Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow comprised Tampa’s best line through the five games. Not only did that trio outscore the opposition 4-1 while on the ice together, but they also dominated possession (69 percent of attempts at 5v5) and did so against some of Columbus’ top competition. With Gourde on the ice at 5v5, Tampa out-shot CBJ by a margin of 56-29.

When looking for a true Stanley Cup contender, a great third line is often a difference-maker. The Lightning’s acquisition of Coleman and Goodrow at the trade deadline has seemingly given their third unit a huge boost and the Jackets just had no answer for it in this series.

Lack of offense (and power play)

Considering Tampa had the NHL’s best offense during the regular season and Columbus had one of the league’s worst, it was always unlikely that the Blue Jackets were going to outproduce the Lightning at even-strength. But when you couple that with the fact that Columbus wasn’t great on the power play in this series either (3-for-20 for a conversion rate of 15 percent), it’s just not surprising that they couldn’t find enough offense to get past Tampa.

The power play was an ugly spot for the Jackets all year. They finished 27th in the league this season (16.4 percent) before going 0-for-14 over the five-game qualifying series vs. Toronto. At least they found some success in this series but had they been a little more lethal on the man-advantage, a few of these tight scorelines vs. the Lightning could have been flipped and we wouldn’t be eulogizing them just yet.

Not enough from veterans

The Blue Jackets got some nice performances from several younger members of their core group. Pierre-Luc Dubois was their best forward. Alexander Wennberg came on strong. Liam Foudy played like he was shot out of a rocket for most of the series. Oliver Bjorkstrand had his moments, too.

But Columbus really could have used more production from their group of veteran forwards. Nick Foligno and Cam Atkinson had three points apiece (despite Atkinson somehow not registering a single shot on goal during the 5-OT Game 1 marathon and then missing the next two games). Gustav Nyquist had one point (an assist) after finishing the season as the Jackets’ second-leading scorer. Boone Jenner was completely blanked on the scoresheet. 

The Blue Jackets aren’t exactly an offensive powerhouse to begin with (27th in offense this year). When some of their bigger names are held to very modest numbers in a series as close as this one, it becomes a very big deal.

Joonas Korpisalo couldn’t do it all

He couldn’t but boy did he ever do his best. This isn’t so much a reason for Columbus being knocked out as it is a space to ensure we give Korpisalo a mention for his efforts in this series. I mean, he set an NHL playoff record with 85 saves in Game 1. He could have spent the rest of the series napping in his crease and 1) nobody would have blamed him 2) his numbers still probably would have looked pretty good. 

Korpisalo was bombarded through the first three games of the series and remained a steady beacon of support behind the Jackets’ defense. His workload eventually lightened a bit over the final couple of games and he ultimately wasn’t able to erase some of the mistakes that the team made in front of him, but we still have to give a tip of the cap for what he was able to accomplish in his first career playoff run. 

His playoff numbers end up looking pretty absurd: He stopped 301 of 320 shots for a .941 save percentage and ends up with a record of 3-5 to show for it. That’s… something.

The Lightning were just better

For the second straight year, Tampa entered this first-round matchup as the much better team. This year, they actually proved it. 

Finding five spots where things went wrong for the Blue Jackets in this series is difficult because they actually played pretty well… they just ran into a superior opponent. Not only does this year’s Lightning team have the talent, they also have appear to have a necessary upgrade in grit and mental toughness. They didn’t fold as Columbus pressed them and tried to grind them down, they didn’t pack it in when things weren’t going their way.

It’s almost impossible to hold anything against this Blue Jackets team because they overachieved by getting into the playoffs to begin with, then proved to be a tough, resilient bunch once the postseason started. They play a respectable blue-collar game that can often mitigate the talent gap, and it feels like John Tortorella was able to get the most he could out of this roster. Now it’s on the front office to give him more and keep the momentum going.

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