It’s not over until it’s over, but the Tampa Bay Lightning are on the cusp of seeing a playoff run that many expected to end with a Stanley Cup coronation come to a shocking close after just four games.
After bafflingly dropping the first two games of the series at home – which marked only the second set of back-to-back regulation losses the Lightning have suffered all season and the first time they’ve lost consecutive games at home since Games 1 and 2 of the 2018 Eastern Conference final – Tampa Bay skated into Columbus Sunday night looking to chip away at the Blue Jackets’ 2-0 series lead, but the Bolts team that showed up looked less a projected champion than they did a flustered and frustrated group. The first period was dominated by Columbus, the second frame saw the Blue Jackets tally twice and while the Lightning would pull within one early enough in the third period to tease a comeback, a Cam Atkinson empty-netter put Columbus ahead 3-1 and, when the final second ticked off the clock, ahead 3-0 in the series.
With the loss, Tampa Bay becomes just the second team in the Presidents’ Trophy era to boast the NHL’s top point total and fall behind three-zip in the first round, and the hope surrounding the Lightning has to be that they can reverse the fortune that befell the 2012 Vancouver Canucks. Those Canucks found themselves in a similar situation – down 3-0 after posting the league’s best record – and though they’d avoid the sweep with a Game 4 victory over the Kings, Los Angeles got the last laugh, eliminating Vancouver in five games before going on to win the Stanley Cup.
Make no mistake, though: if the Bolts can’t manage to win one before packing their bags, this will undoubtedly be the most monumental first-round sweep in NHL history. The Lightning’s regular season was a thing of legends, complete with a league-record tying 62 wins, and Tampa Bay’s 128 points would be the highest total of any team to be swept in the first round. Since the NHL moved to a seven-game first round in 1986-87, no team with more than 110 points has dropped four in a row to kick off the post-season.
But that’s not to say there hasn’t been several powerhouse clubs who have fallen in four games over the past 30-plus years. Here are the five best teams who have been swept in the first round:
CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS – 1992-93
47-25-12 – 106 points (1st in Western Conference, 3rd in NHL)
The Blackhawks had thrashed the Western Conference en route to the Stanley Cup final in 1992, dropping just two games in the first three rounds, disposing of the St. Louis Blues, Detroit Red Wings and Edmonton Oilers along the way. The championship bid fell short when the Blackhawks were run over by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the final, but the feeling was that a similarly structured Chicago team had what it took to make another deep run in 1993. But despite an excellent regular season, that was not the case. The Blackhawks dropped Game 1 of their first-round series to the Blues 4-3 and some guy named Curtis Joseph did the rest, blanking Chicago in Games 2 and 3 before St. Louis sealed the series on Craig Janney’s overtime winner in Game 4.
BOSTON BRUINS – 1992-93
51-26-7 – 109 points (2nd in Eastern Conference, 2nd in NHL)
Misery loves company, so the Bruins joined the Blackhawks as top teams swept out of the dance in 1993. Unlike Chicago’s tilt with St. Louis, though, Boston’s first round meeting with the Buffalo Sabres really could have gone either way. Three of the four games went to overtime, with Game 2 the lone regulation win for Buffalo as Grant Fuhr shutout Boston as the Sabres skated to a 4-0 win. Otherwise, it was a tooth-and-nail series, fitting for two teams that had a 4-3 season series in which they scored 19 goals apiece. The overtime heroes for Buffalo were Bob Sweeney (Game 1), Yuri Khmyliev (Game 3) and Brad May (Game 4), the latter leading to Rick Jeanneret’s legendary ‘May Day’ goal call.
OTTAWA SENATORS – 2000-01
48-21-9-4 – 109 points (2nd in Eastern Conference, 4th in NHL)
Technically, the 1998-99 Senators finished higher in the overall standings, their 103 points putting them third in the NHL that season, but based on pure point total, the 2000-01 Senators get the dubious distinction of landing on this list. Ottawa was looking to exact revenge on the Toronto Maple Leafs, who had ousted them in Round 1 the year prior, but the results went sideways almost instantly thanks in large part to Curtis Joseph, who appears on this list once again. ‘CuJo’ shutout the Senators in Games 1 and 2, with Mats Sundin scoring the overtime winner in the opening game of the series, and would steal Games 3 and 4 on the strength of Joseph’s play, Cory Cross’ Game 3 extra frame tally and a pair of goals from Yanic Perreault in Game 4.
DETROIT RED WINGS – 2002-03
48-20-10-4 – 110 points (2nd in Western Conference, 3rd in NHL)
The series that truly began the playoff legend of Jean-Sebastien Giguere, who made 63 saves on 64 shots in Anaheim’s Paul Kariya-powered triple-overtime victory over the Red Wings in Game 1. From there, it was almost all ‘Jiggy,’ all the time. Through the next three games, Detroit managed to score a mere five goals on 107 shots, as the Mighty Ducks managed to rattle off another three consecutive wins to send the Red Wings packing in four. Making Giguere’s feat especially incredible is that he was stymying the NHL’s top attack, which had led the league with 269 regular season goals. By the way, Giguere’s counterpart in the series? Curtis Joseph. This time, the shoe was on the other foot.
CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS – 2016-17
50-23-9 – 109 points (1st in Western Conference, 3rd in NHL)
In three of the four above series, a red-hot goaltender determined the outcome, and the 2017 first-round meeting between the Blackhawks and Predators was no different as Pekka Rinne stole the show in Nashville’s ousting of Chicago. Across Games 1 and 2, Rinne stopped all 59 shots he faced to power the Predators to a 2-0 series lead. In Game 3, Rinne held fast through overtime, allowing Kevin Fiala to deliver the dagger. Rinne then sealed the series with a 30-save performance in Game 4. And while the Blackhawks went home early despite some predictions they could win it all again, the Predators made their way to the first Stanley Cup final in franchise history.
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