The Tampa Bay Lightning have screwed up. Big time.
In an unexpected plot twist, Tampa is down 2-0 in its opening-round playoff series against the upstart Columbus Blue Jackets. Making matters worse, they will be without the services of presumptive league MVP Nikita Kucherov for Sunday's Game 3 in Columbus.
Not exactly exemplary work thus far from the Lightning, a tremendously skilled and deep squad that just authored the greatest regular season in recent memory. Realistically, they must get their act together overnight, as only four teams in NHL history have clawed back from a 3-0 series deficit and advanced to the next round.
So, what’s going on here? Let's dig into Tampa's troubles.
Atop head coach Jon Cooper's list of worries: the Lightning's star power has been a giant net-negative through two games.
Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point, and Victor Hedman - the tone-setting skaters in Tampa's lineup - have combined for zero points and 32 penalty minutes. Their lack of production is a major reason why the Lightning have been outscored 9-1 since the first period of Game 1.
Kucherov, who quietly goes about his business most nights, racked up half of those PIMs Friday. He justly received a tripping minor, boarding major, and 10-minute misconduct for upending and then plastering Markus Nutivaara into the halfboards late in Game 2. The incident deserved supplementary discipline.
Overall, the Jackets have done a terrific job irritating Kucherov and limiting his wizardry with the puck. The usual gaps between the Russian winger and opposing defensemen have been narrowed, while the passing lanes he typically feeds have been swallowed up by a defensive structure rooted in puck support.
Kucherov has been unable to draw a single penalty, while Point, normally a disciplined two-way center, felt the need to fight Jackets blue-liner Zach Werenski late in the first period of Game 2. Clearly, Columbus is straddling the fine line between productive and unproductive aggression. Can't say the same about Tampa.
Hedman, meanwhile, hasn't looked sharp at all in his 37 minutes at 5-on-5. His skating, for starters, seems off and hindered by something. Perhaps the upper-body injury that sidelined the stud defenseman for the final four regular season games is contributing to some uncharacteristic output.
Another concern: Hedman and his teammates are losing 50/50 puck battles like it's going out of style. Columbus' Josh Anderson and David Savard, in particular, have proven to be too powerful and quick. This has led to an inordinate amount of breakaways, partial breakaways, and odd-man rushes.
Moving forward, the Lightning can't be caught sleepwalking, regardless of the score. The final goal Friday was a pretty sad display of positional awareness and effort. Sure, it happened in the latter stages of a 5-1 game, but c'mon:
Andrei Vasilevskiy has faced the same amount of shots (53) as the Jackets' Sergei Bobrovsky and both goalies deserve praise for their work between the pipes through 120 minutes. Plain and simple, though, Columbus is capitalizing on their high-percentage shots right now, and Tampa isn't.
Among the handful of underperforming stars, Stamkos deserves the most slack.
The Lightning captain has been incredibly unlucky versus Columbus. One of the NHL's premier snipers has produced a series-high 11 scoring chances for himself, according to NaturalStatTrick.com, yet has nothing to show for it.
In Game 2, Stamkos whipped a hard, accurate slap shot during a second-period power play. It clanked iron. Then, early in the third, he had another glorious opportunity to bag his first of the post-season. From below the hashmarks, Stamkos fired the puck toward the yawning cage, but it struck Point's leg and trickled out of harm's way:
Really, when you peel back the statistical layers, it's not just Stamkos who's held his own. Tampa, as a team, is actually doing alright at even-strength. They have the slight edge in shot attempts, are basically even with Columbus in shots on goal and scoring chances, and own a sizeable advantage in the high-danger chances department. Translation: Neither club is dominating.
Now, from a fan's point of view, the advanced stats argument (hold tight and trust the process, because the attempts and shots and chances will eventually turn into goals) can feel rather hollow come playoff time. After all, there are no moral victories in a seven-game battle and a series can get away from even the best teams in a hurry.
Inside the Lightning dressing room, however, Cooper and his coaching staff can use data to form a positive narrative. They have some ammo, evidence to reference before saying, Guys, you're doing PLENTY right! Let's clean up the details in our game and get this thing back on track in Game 3!
Easier said than done, of course, but it's better than the alternative. And Cooper, a former lawyer with a coaching reputation built on communication skills, is the ideal guy to deliver an underlying theme of staying the course.
Indeed, perspective is key for the Lightning.
Sure, Columbus' 28th-ranked power play is suddenly humming. Yes, Matt Duchene, the Jackets' prized trade deadline acquisition, is finally scoring. But there's no reason why both team and player can't be brought back to earth by an opponent whose body of work is unparalleled in the salary cap era.
If there's a group capable of rattling off four wins in the next five games, it's the 2018-19 Lightning, the same team that didn't lose three games in a row all season, and were the heavy favorites prior to Game 1 puck drop.
Two losses don't erase 62 wins, best-in-class special teams, and top-10 results at 5-on-5. Their DNA as a supremely talented, battle-tested team doesn't disappear into the abyss after a couple rough days at the office.
Let's not forget that Columbus won the first two games on the road last year against Washington, before losing the next four and exiting the playoffs after just one round. Different seasons, changed personnel. Still.
Widespread panic in Tampa should subside for now. But there's no denying the hourglass has been flipped, especially with the Kucherov discipline news.
And the sand will start falling at a feverish pace when the teams line up Sunday night in Ohio.
John Matisz is theScore's National Hockey Writer. You can find him on Twitter @matiszjohn.