Understatement: the Columbus Blue Jackets have their work cut out for them against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Lightning are arguably one of the most flawless teams in the NHL and the Blue Jackets are kind of in a holding pattern, with plenty of off-ice questions dogging them throughout the year. Columbus waited until virtually the last minute to punch their playoff ticket and that may not bode well when you’re looking across the ice at Tampa.
The Blue Jackets look precarious because this is an all-or-nothing team. Jarmo Kekalainen bet that Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky could bring a Cup to Ohio and, by not moving them at the deadline, he’s playing a risk-heavy game. He also kicked the tires and came up with Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel, catching two Ottawa castoffs in an effort to ramp up the squad.
Will it work? The regular season storyline doesn’t bode well for the Jackets. Tampa defeated them three times and did so resoundingly, outscoring Columbus 17-3. Those games may have come before the deadline deals, but still. Ouch.
We’re about to witness one of the league’s offensive powerhouses take flight. Tampa left the regular season with the best powerplay in the NHL and the most goals for. That’s in large part due to Nikita Kucherov, who clinched the scoring title and had nine points against the Blue Jackets in the regular season.
Tampa finished with a plus-103 goal differential, including shootout-winners. When they scored first, the Lightning went 39-4-3. And they ended the season with three 40-goal scorers, the first time anyone’s done that since the Penguins of 1995-1996 featured the trifecta of Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr and Liberec’s Petr Nedved.
For the Blue Jackets, they’ll have to deactivate Kucherov, Brayden Point and Steven Stamkos. Somehow.
It won’t be easy, but they can lean on their own scoring dexterity to a certain extent. That starts with Panarin, who set team records for assists and points for a second straight campaign. Panarin put up 87 in 79 games.
Duchene had 70 points in 73 games, including a dozen points in 23 games with Columbus. Dzingel posted a dozen points in 21 games with the Blue Jackets and could make a playoff impression, but Cam Atkinson will be the goal-scorer of note. He had 41 goals in 80 games, a career-high.
Pierre-Luc Dubois and Josh Anderson can also threaten offensively for the Jackets.
Defensively, it’s hard to find a weakness in Tampa. While defenceman Victor Hedman is listed as day-to-day, expectations are that he’ll arrive in time for the series. That’ll give things an instant boost, not like they need it.
Tampa’s goal differential tells the tale, as they only allowed 222 goals against all season. This while playing an up-tempo, perilous offensive style. Neutral zone turnovers may be one of their only weaknesses, but even those have been alleviated by strong play in the defensive zone. And when the Lightning carry into the offensive zone, their turnover rate is shockingly low.
Add the best penalty kill in the league to the defensive story and Tampa is a tough nut for Columbus to crack, even if they can find a way to contain the offence.
The Blue Jackets have Ryan Murray and Adam McQuaid out of the lineup. But they do boast a top pairing of Seth Jones and Zach Werenski, who’ve faced some of the league’s top forwards and emerged on top. They tangled with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin twice and know how to keep pace with the big guns.
Advanced metrics don’t tell the whole story, but boasting a top pairing like Jones and Werenski does give the Blue Jackets something to work with. It means they can challenge Tampa’s unyielding offence.
As a team, Columbus has fared well. They allowed 231 goals against in the regular season, down from the league average, and they also held down high-danger chances.
Tampa’s Andrei Vasilevskiy can face a lot of shots thanks to Tampa’s chancy style, but he’s equal to the task. Columbus was only able to squeak three goals past him over the course of three meetings and they cracked off 103 shots on target. In the last trip, Vasilevskiy faced 40 shots and let in just a goal while his squad scored five goals in 20 shots.
Vasilevskiy won’t have his usual backup goalie to work with as Louis Domingue is on the shelf, but he will be ready for the post-season all the same. Vasilevskiy finished the regular season first in wins and save percentage, second in goals-against average and third in shutouts.
The Bobrovsky gamble might pay off for the Blue Jackets. With the chance to trade him at the deadline long gone, it’s up to Bob to turn in a playoff performance. And he finished strong, piling up a 1.50 goals-against average in his last seven starts. He was second in wins to Vasilevskiy, which sets up quite a goaltending duel.
But in the post-season, Bobrovsky stumbles a bit. He’s 5-14, with a 3.49 goals-against average and a .891 save percentage across 20 starts and 24 playoff games. That suggests things could go badly for the netminder – and in a hurry. If Tampa gets under his skin, it might be time for Joonas Korpisalo.
It’s perhaps easiest to select Tampa Bay and move on, but there are considerations. Columbus can be a gutsy team and there’s some fire to these Tortorella-coached Jackets. Panarin’s offensive expertise could shine through and he and Atkinson could provide enough firepower to get the job done against Vasilevskiy. And Kucherov might not show up. And Stamkos might…
Oh, who are we kidding? Tampa Bay wins this series in five games.
(Photo credit: REUTERS / Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sport)