By vanquishing the Toronto Maple Leafs in Game Five of their Stanley Cup Playoff Qualifying Round series, the Columbus Blue Jackets punched their ticket to another dance with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Columbus enters the Eastern Conference First Round as the seventh seed, while the Lightning are second. They went 2-0-1 in the round robin portion of the qualifiers.
The two met in the first round of the playoffs last season and the Blue Jackets scooped the upset, sweeping the Lightning. Tampa was the Presidents’ Trophy-winning top seed that time out, so they’ll be looking for revenge this time out.
But like the Maple Leafs found out, Columbus is a well-coached, heavy hockey team. They play a tight structure and grind you down, stars and all. And they don’t take many penalties in the process, averaging the fewest in the Eastern Conference.
The Lightning likewise boast a structure and are capable of filling the net and keeping the puck out of their own. Tyler Johnson, Alex Killorn, and Brayden Point each had three points in the round robin, while Nikita Kucherov had two points. Steven Stamkos was unfit to play and missed the round robin. As of press time, he’s “out indefinitely.”
The Lightning have been playing things pretty close to the chest as far as Stammer is concerned. Stamkos had core muscle surgery in early March of this year and fully recovered, but general manager Julien BriseBois announced a new injury suffered as the forward participated in voluntary workouts post-Pause.
Friday, head coach Jon Cooper said that Stamkos was “eager to come back” but he had no real information and all but shut down future questions.
Granted, the Lightning have a lot of depth and can weather Stamkos’ absence better than they could in 2016.
But they’ve drawn a tough opponent in Columbus. The Blue Jackets play a punishing style and are getting top-tier goaltending from Joonas Korpisalo. He had two shutouts against Toronto and was the backup when Columbus last tangled with Tampa, but he saw no game time as Sergei Bobrovsky handled the show.
When Columbus and the Lightning met in the regular season, Tampa took the win 2-1 in overtime. Kucherov had two goals and Elvis Merzlikins had the net for the losing squad.
The Lightning fell to the second seed spot in the standings after losing to the Philadelphia Flyers in their last round robin contest. Had they won that game, they’d be facing the Montreal Canadiens in the first round and would’ve had home ice advantage in these intensely bizarre playoffs.
Game One of the First Round series between the Lightning and Blue Jackets takes place Tuesday at 3pm EST.