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Tampa Bay Lightning Collapses In First Round of NHL Playoffs

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Apologies to Ohio. If you've never heard of the Columbus Blue Jackets, you're definitely not alone. On the flip side, the Tampa Bay Lightning wish they'd never heard of the Blue Jackets. The Lightning were by far the best team in the National Hockey League. In fact, there was a time - like, just over a week ago - that you could say they were one of the best teams ever. No team in NHL history had ever won more games in the regular season.

Now, contrast that with the Columbus Blue Jackets, an unlikely bunch. They barely squeaked into the playoffs. Their first-round matchup was supposed to be a walkover. Instead, the Lightning were overrun. Columbus won its first playoff series ever with a sweep that still has experts like my next guest wondering what happened.

Greg Wyshynski is senior NHL writer for ESPN. He's co-host of the Puck Soup podcast. He joins me now via Skype. Welcome to the program.

GREG WYSHYNSKI: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: Help us understand. Just how good were the Lightning before this collapse?

WYSHYNSKI: Oh, quite good. They had 62 wins in the regular season. That tied the all-time NHL record for wins in a season. This was a team that was doing historic things in the regular season. Consider this. Thirty of their 62 victories were by three goals or more. So every time they stepped on the ice, they weren't just winning. They were blowing away their opponents.

CORNISH: So it's safe to say any sane hockey analyst (laughter) basically would have said that the Lightning was going to win the series, right? So what happened?

WYSHYNSKI: (Laughter) Well, I think Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh put it best. Everything that they did so well in the regular season, the Columbus Blue Jackets did it better in this series. But the bigger picture is this for the Lightning. They clinched a playoff spot in early March. They've been on cruise control for months. The Columbus Blue Jackets had to win seven of their last eight games just to get into the playoffs. So when push came to shove and adversity hit in the series, the Lightning had a bad six days compared to a great 82 games in the regular season, and then they were swept.

CORNISH: Now, your assessment is far more kind, I think, than that of the fan base. And I'm basing that on a tweet from the Tampa Bay Lightning Twitter feed, which said this. We don't have any words. 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.

Have you ever seen a team this apologetic?

WYSHYNSKI: (Laughter) No, but they have a lot to apologize for. I mean, the only other team in the history of the four major sports that had this kind of success in the regular season and then didn't win a playoff game was the 2011 Green Bay Packers. They went 15 and 1 in the regular season and then lost to the New York Giants in the first round of the NFL playoffs. But in that case, we're talking about one game. This is a team that had four chances to win a game, and they couldn't do it.

CORNISH: And now Columbus is the toast of the NHL. Will there be a Blue Jackets bandwagon?

WYSHYNSKI: (Laughter) There might be. You know, they're a team that plays an entertaining brand of hockey. Their head coach, John Tortorella, is entertainment in and of himself, sometimes a blustery, yelling guy. So there is something scrappy about this team. And there's also something scrappy about this franchise. They've been around for a very long time, and this is the first time that they've even won three games in a playoff series.

CORNISH: Can they keep this going?

WYSHYNSKI: I think so. There's no reason that this team can't beat anybody if they can beat one of the single greatest hockey teams in the regular season that the NHL has ever seen in over a hundred years.

CORNISH: Greg Wyshynski is senior NHL writer for ESPN and co-host for the fantastically named Puck Soup podcast. Thank you for speaking with us.

WYSHYNSKI: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.