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  • The Lightning and the Flames suffered historic playoff collapses, losing in the first round. Now how will last year's best teams rebound?
By Joan Niesen
October 01, 2019

This story appears in the Oct. 7, 2019, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.

Sitting in a state approaching disbelief on the team bus last April, Blue Jackets winger Cam Atkinson called his parents. "How did it look on TV?" he asked, wondering if what just happened made more sense from afar.

The "it" in question was Columbus's 4–3 victory over Tampa Bay in Game 1 of the first round. The Lightning, who tied the 1995–96 Red Wings for the league record for regular-season wins with 62, had blown a three-goal, first-period lead. Atkinson's parents, viewing that night from their home in Greenwich, Conn., were stunned. Turns out it was as unbelievable from the couch as it was from the bench.

Three days after the Blue Jackets finished their sweep of Tampa, the eighth-seeded Avalanche ousted the Flames in five games. For the first time in NHL history, both No. 1 seeds were eliminated in the opening round. In the immediate aftermath, the losers searched for explanations. "You don't play meaningful hockey for a long time, then all of a sudden you have to ramp it up," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said after Game 4. Says Flames captain Mark Giordano, "The days right after [the loss], everyone was thinking, ‘What do we have to change? What do we have to do to make sure this doesn't happen again?’"

Well, five months later both teams look strikingly similar to the ones that face-planted in April. Tampa Bay brings back its formidable core, including sniper Steven Stamkos and stalwart defenseman Victor Hedman, while adding Kevin Shattenkirk and Luke Schenn to shore up a back line that will miss the steady presence of Anton Stralman (signed by the Panthers).

Calgary essentially swapped goalie Mike Smith for Cam Talbot, 32, who is on a one-year deal to preserve his career after a dreadful season split between Edmonton and Philadelphia. The team's other meaningful move was to swap wingers with the Oilers, acquiring Milan Lucic for James Neal.

"You take a couple of weeks or a month to really digest it," Giordano says, "and [you realize] we have a really strong team."

An offensive juggernaut all season, the Flames got away from their high-tempo game; instead of burying Colorado, they felt as if they were struggling to keep pace. They were vulnerable in transition, coach Bill Peters concedes, as were the Lightning, who had been without question the league's best team on the rush. Tampa Bay center Tyler Johnson felt his team stayed true to its identity for the most part, but he cites the lack of power-play goals (1 for 6 over the four-game series) and a failure to adjust to the more deliberate pace Columbus set. "I think we played more on the physical side than what we were doing throughout the year," he adds. "That maybe cost us a little bit."

Players on both teams say the first-round flops have brought extra motivation into training camp. In Calgary, it's already become a frequent point of discussion. They talk about, as Lucic recently remarked to Giordano, "the difference between being a contender and a champion." Lucic would know: He was with Boston for its 2011 Cup run and '13 finals appearance.

In the end, both Tampa Bay and Calgary seem to have chalked up last spring's catastrophes as isolated episodes of bad luck, believing an overreaction wouldn't be prudent. But in a league that favors parity and unpredictability, where No. 8 seeds can topple the best teams, standing pat may be no different from falling behind.

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