TORONTO (AP) — As if forward Alex Killorn and the Tampa Bay Lightning needed yet another reminder of last year’s monumental playoff collapse in preparing to open the first round Tuesday.
The ever-stingy, John Tortorella-coached Columbus Blue Jackets are standing in their way once again in the best-of-seven series to be played in the Eastern Conference hub city of Toronto.
“We’re not focusing on last year,” Killorn said, in summing up how most Tampa Bay players have grown tired of discussing how the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Lightning were swept in four games by the Blue Jackets in April 2019. “We’re focusing on playing our game and excited for playoff hockey.”
The Lightning, guaranteed a first-round berth, enter as the conference’s second seed after closing the preliminary round-robin tournament with a 2-1 record following a 4-1 loss to Philadelphia on Saturday.
The loss proved costly for Tampa Bay, with star defenseman Victor Hedman not returning after appearing to twist his right ankle in the first period. Hedman’s status is uncertain, and the Lightning are already without captain Steven Stamkos, who has been out since sustaining a lower body injury before training camp opened last month.
Goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy wondered if the Lightning being confronted with a sudden jolt of adversity might actually help them focus after what happened last year. The Lightning won 62 games to match the NHL record set by the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings and cruised down the stretch after clinching a playoff berth with nearly a month left in the regular season.
“We don’t want to get comfortable like last year,” Vasilevskiy said. “For sure, we’ll have some urgency in there in the first round.”
Seventh-seeded Columbus, meantime, advanced following a 3-0 win over Toronto in a decisive Game 5 on Sunday to settle a rollicking preliminary round series.
The Blue Jackets showed resilience in a series in which both teams rallied from three-goal deficits, including Columbus’ 4-3 overtime loss in Game 4, in which Toronto scored three times in the final four minutes of regulation.
Though the Blue Jackets are playing two games in less than 48 hours, captain Nick Foligno believes Columbus might have an early edge in having already played meaningful games.
“I fully anticipate the Lightning to be ready to play. This is for real now,” Foligno said. “And I guess you can say we’ve been playing that kind of hockey for a little longer. But they’re a well-coached veteran team that understands what they’re up against.”
Lightning coach Jon Cooper dismissed comparisons to last year’s playoffs by noting the changes to each teams’ rosters.
Tampa Bay’s late-season additions included forwards Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow and defenseman Zach Bogosian. They also signed free-agent forward Pat Maroon, a member of the Stanley Cup-winning champion St. Louis Blues in 2019.
The Blue Jackets made significant offseason changes, after losing forwards Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel as well as starting goalie Sergei Bobrovsky in free agency.
The Blue Jackets were 0 of 14 on power-play opportunities against Toronto, and haven’t scored a power-play goal in their past eight games going back to the regular season.
“Yeah, we need to get it going. It’s been a struggle,” Tortorella said. “If we keep on thinking about succeeding in this here, we need to get that straightened out.”
Columbus penalty killers went 11 of 13.
The Lightning converted 2 of 5 man-advantage opportunities, and allowed one power-play goal on 11 chances.
Tortorella doesn’t believe his Blue Jackets get enough respect because they play a tight-checking style which doesn’t generate much offense.
“That’s something we’ll keep internal. It’s kind of an inner fire for us,” Tortorella said. “It (ticks) me off as far as how sometimes we’re perceived in our market and all that. But you can’t get caught up in perception. It’s a tough way to live if you worry about perception.”
Cooper wondered if his team might initially be a step behind the Blue Jackets.
“It’s hard to replicate what they just went through. Like, we can’t do it,” he said. “None of the games we played were do or die.”
Aside from injuries, however, Cooper noted the Lightning should be more rested.
The Lightning are making their 12th playoff appearance, sixth in seven years, and won the Cup with Tortorella as coach in 2004.
The Blue Jackets are making their sixth playoff appearance and fourth consecutive under Tortorella. Their series victory over Tampa Bay last year was the first in franchise history.