COLUMBUS — Their desperation was evident in every stride, every shot, every lunge, every hit, every puck the Blue Jackets blocked and every play they made.
Leading a best-of-seven, first-round series against the Tampa Bay Lightning by what most considered a shocking 3-0 margin, the Blue Jackets played Game 4 on Tuesday night at jam-packed Nationwide Arena as if they were the ones facing elimination.
That, ultimately, is what got them over the top in a Stanley Cup playoff series, finally, after nearly 20 years. After outplaying the heavily favored Lightning in practically every way possible, the Jackets won the desperation battle, too, sweeping this series with a 7-3 victory inside a frenzied, nerve-addled, raucous arena that hosted a Columbus clinch party years in the making.
The victory was not only the first series clinch in franchise history, it was also the first time the NHL’s best regular-season team was swept out of the playoffs in the opening round. It was the first time Nationwide Arena has hosted a handshake line with the home team being congratulated, too.
It started with goals in the first 3:48 of the game by the two youngest players on the team, Alexandre Texier and Pierre-Luc Dubois — one a French teenager and the other a 20-year old who speaks the language fluently.
It was the first of two goals for Texier and the first playoff goal of his NHL career, which began with just two games left in the regular season. It was Dubois’ first goal of these playoffs and his first of what turned out to be three points in the game — adding two assists, as well.
Their goals — Texier's on a power play and Dubois’ at even strength — were just the start of it.
The Blue Jackets got two more big ones in the second from Seth Jones, whose father was an NBA player, and Oliver Bjorkstrand — who learned the game of hockey in the small town of Herning, Denmark, which isn’t exactly a hotbed for ice hockey.
All four of those goals, plus some impressive saves by Sergei Bobrovsky, sent Blue Jackets fans into hysterics, lifting the energy-level off the ice each time the Lightning mounted a comeback.
After Steven Stamkos’ first goal of the playoffs cut the Blue Jackets’ lead to 2-1 at 8:44 of the first — making the team rue its numerous failed scoring chances — Jones finally popped in a third goal for a 3-1 lead at 6:28 of the second.
When Cedric Paquette cut it to 3-2 about seven minutes later and Brayden Point tied it 3-3 on a late Lightning power play, it was Bjorkstrand with the counterpunch, jamming home a loose puck during a delayed penalty off a rebound of a shot by Scott Harrington.
The assists went to Dubois and Harrington, who was a healthy scratch for most of the previous two seasons. A regular on the third pairing this season, now helping fill a void without two injured veterans, there he was playing a key role when the Blue Jackets needed it, playing with desperation.
It was more of the same in the third, as a Lightning team that terrorized the NHL’s fraternity of goalies pressed with its panicked level of desperation, sending shot after shot at Bobrovsky (30 saves). They couldn't get another one by him and the Jackets put three consecutive goals by Artemi Panarin, Texier and Matt Duchene into an empty net to seal it.