Blue Jackets surge sets tone for unpredictable NHL playoffs

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Tampa Bay Lightning, the NHL’s best team, lost their first two playoff games at home to the Columbus Blue Jackets and are vulnerable without their top scorer for Game 3.

Winnipeg lost its first two at home, leaving the Jets fighting for their post-season relevance as that series shifts to St. Louis.

The Pittsburgh Penguins are loaded with stars who have years of playoff experience. The Pens are down 2-0 to the New York Islanders as their series moves to the Steel City.

So much for home-ice advantage and conventional thinking in these NHL playoffs.

The Blue Jackets have been in this heady position before in the post-season, just before they fell on their faces.

Now they have the Tampa Bay on the ropes and are enticingly closer to winning the first playoff series in franchise history. The series shifts to Columbus on Sunday night (7 p.m., NBCSN). The Lightning will be without 128-point scorer Nikita Kucherov , who was suspended for a game for boarding the Markus Nutivaara on Friday night.

Last year the Blue Jackets went up 2-0 in the first round against Washington on the road before the Capitals won four straight and rolled on a Stanley Cup championship. In other words, there’s a lot of hockey left to the play in the series, and the Blue Jackets players know it all too well.

“I think we should still have a sour taste in our mouth from last year,” said wing Cam Atkinson, who scored the first goal for Columbus in the 5-1 rout of Tampa Bay on Friday . “It’s a series for a reason. They’re obviously the best team in the league. We just can’t take our foot off the gas pedal.”

Columbus has risen to the occasion and hasn’t backed down from their opponents.

“We’re in a hole, we’re in a tough position, but we are not going to quit,” Lightning centre Steven Stamkos said. “We have to take a page out of their book and go on the road and win a hockey game. We just have to focus on Game 3. It’s tough, it just hasn’t gone our way right now.”

Or, as coach Jon Cooper put it: “This is a five-alarm fire.”

Islanders at Penguins, New York leads series 2-0 (noon EDT, NBC).

During their current run of 13 consecutive playoff appearances, the Pittsburgh Penguins lost in the first round three times. They’ll need to turn things around quickly to avoid a fourth.

Pittsburgh took its first lead in the series in the second period of Game 2 before the Islanders tied it minutes later and then pulled away in the third period for a 3-1 win.

The Penguins will look to regroup as they head home for the next two games. They know it’s not an insurmountable deficit.

“It’s the first team to win four games, not two,” coach Mike Sullivan said when asked about his message to the team after Game 2. “We got to go back home, we got to control what we can. We got to win one game, and then we’ll go from there.”

The Islanders have held Jake Guentzel, who led the Penguins with 40 goals during the season, and star centre Sidney Crosby (35 goals, 65 assists) off the scoresheet in the first two games.

Pittsburgh, sixth in the NHL in scoring during the season, has scored four times on 76 shots against an Islanders team that allowed the fewest goals in the league. After finishing fifth on the power play at 24.6 per cent, the Penguins are 1 for 5 so far.

Jets at Blues, St. Louis leads series 2-0 (7:30 p.m. EDT, CNBC)

The Jets’ confidence is not shaken after losing each of the first two games of the series by one goal.

“For the most part, we’ve played two pretty solid games,” Winnipeg centre Adam Lowry said after the Jets fell 4-3 on Friday night . “It comes down to a couple breaks. I feel like we’re right there. I don’t think we’re frustrated. I don’t think you can let that creep into this room.”

Oskar Sundqvist scored twice, and Ryan O’Reilly broke the tie early in the third period to give the Blues the edge as the series shifts to St. Louis.

“They are going to give us their best game, Game 3 at home,” Blues coach Craig Berube said. “And there’s no reason to get too high. You’ve got to stay ready and you gotta play even better than we’ve played.”

Jordan Binnington made 26 saves for St. Louis, becoming the second goalie in franchise history to win his first two playoff games.

Sharks at Golden Knights, series tied 1-1 (10 p.m. EDT, NBCSN)

Taking penalties against San Jose usually isn’t the right recipe for success, especially with the Sharks’ two potent power-play units led by dynamic defencemen Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson and a talented group of forwards.

Vegas survived that in Game 2 and even came out ahead when the Sharks had the man advantage. The Golden Knights committed eight minor penalties that gave San Jose power plays, including one minute of five-on-three action in Game 2.

But Vegas got the better of the play in those situations, scoring two short-handed goals and allowing just one on the power play, which proved to be pivotal.

“It’s hard to win this time of year if you don’t win special teams,” Sharks coach Peter DeBoer said.

San Jose is just 2 for 13 on the power play this series, with two goals allowed, a far cry from a unit that ranked sixth in the league in the regular season at 23.7%.

“I just didn’t think we shot the puck enough — myself included,” forward Logan Couture said. “Too many times, we’d pass. We’ve got to get back to shooting it.”

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Associated Press Sports writers Josh Dubow in San Jose, California; Vinay Cherwoo in New York; and Mark Didtler in Tampa, Florida, contributed to this report.

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More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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Follow Mitch Stacy on Twitter at https://twitter.com/mitchstacy

Mitch Stacy, The Associated Press

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