Since the NHL instituted their salary cap in 2005-06, the league hasn’t seen a team dominate like the Tampa Bay Lightning have this season. In fact, there hasn’t been a group as successful in the NHL since 1995-96. That season, the Detroit Red Wings won 62 games. The Lightning matched that win total and ran away with the Presidents’ Trophy with 128 points. That’s 21 more than the second-place Calgary Flames. With that level of success comes a high level of pressure to match major expectations. Their opponents in the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Columbus Blue Jackets, have their own level of pressure going into the postseason.
Since making the Stanley Cup Final in 2015, the Lightning have routinely found themselves as a Stanley Cup contender. Heading into 2018-19, nothing changed in that department. However, nobody expected them to break numerous team and individual records while tying the single-season wins record. As a result, the phrase “Stanley Cup or Bust” has become commonplace among Lightning fans. It’s tough to argue otherwise for a group as stacked as the Lightning.
Going into this series, the Lightning own the pressure of being the favorite. Across the ice, the Blue Jackets possess a different kind of pressure. At the start of the season, Columbus faced the distinct possibility of losing their two best players, winger Artemi Panarin and goaltender Sergei Bobrovskiy, to unrestricted free agency after the end of 2018-19. It became impossible to talk about the Jackets without wondering what they’d do with their two star Russians. Would they trade them for future assets? Or keep them around for the playoffs and risk losing them for nothing?
Well, not only did they keep them both, they acquired players in a shocking move to go all in for the playoffs. In an effort to win a playoff series for the first time in franchise history, Columbus added Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, Adam McQuaid, and Keith Kinkaid. They gave up several draft picks and a few prospects in the process.
It’s the Lightning, seeking to cap off a historical season, against the Blue Jackets, desperate for playoff success and desperate to justify their gutsy decision to push their chips to the center of the table. Not your typical top seed/bottom seed playoff match-up.
Tampa Bay: 3-0-0
Not only did the Lightning sweep the season series from the Blue Jackets, they dominated them. Tampa Bay outscored Columbus 17-3 over the course of the three meetings. Nikita Kucherov, the favorite for the Hart Trophy after scoring 128 points this season (most ever by a Russian-born player), tallied nine points in those three games. The final scores were 8-2, 4-0, and 5-1.
If there’s one saving grace for the Jackets, it’s that all three of those contests occurred before Columbus’s barrage of trade deadline maneuvering. While the Blue Jackets won seven of their final eight games to clinch the East’s final playoff spot, it took some time to figure out where all the new parts fit in after the trade deadline. On the other hand, the Bolts continued winning games even after clinching the Presidents’ Trophy and look like a team ready to finish the job in the playoffs this time around.
Tampa Bay: 28.2 PP% (1st), 85.0 PK% (T-1st), 325 GF (1st), 222 GA (5th)
Columbus: 15.4 PP% (28th), 85.0 PK% (T-1st), 258 GF (12th), 232 GA (11th)
Advanced Stats (5-on-5 via Natural Stat Trick)
Tampa Bay: Corsi For %: 51.59 (9th), Fenwick For %: 51.37 (10th), Goals For %: 56.75 (1st), Scoring Chances For %: 52.03 (11th), High Danger Scoring Chances %: 52.54 (11th), Save %: 92.16 (10th), Shooting %: 9.8 (2nd), PDO: 1.020 (3rd)
Columbus: Corsi For %: 50.21 (12th), Fenwich For %: 51.07 (11th), Goals For %: 52.38 (11th), Scoring Chances For %: 51.27 (12th), High Danger Scoring Chances %: 51.25 (14th), Save %: 91.59 (23rd), Shooting %: 8.81 (6th), PDO: 1.004 (11th)
Keys to victory for each team
Get to Bobrovsky early and often
In the three-game season series, the Lightning outscored the Blue Jackets 7-0 in the first periods of those games. If the Lightning can continue to keep that trend up and keep the pressure on Columbus early in games, it will bode very well for them in this series, as the Lightning clearly own the deeper and more talented roster from top to bottom.
We all know the firepower the Lightning possess on their top two lines. Tampa Bay became the first team to boast three 40-goal scorers since the 1995-96 Pittsburgh Penguins, as Steven Stamkos finished with 45 goals while Kucherov and Brayden Point each tallied 41. However, a strength of this team is its depth scoring. Tyler Johnson finished with 29 goals and Yanni Gourde scored 22, Anthony Cirelli had 19 and Alex Killorn ended the year with 18. On top of that, Mathieu Joseph, J.T. Miller, and Cedric Paquette each scored 13. No other team in the league can boast the depth the Lightning do up front. That must continue if they’re going to bring home a championship.
Vasilevskiy must continue to be great
A year ago, Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy earned the first Vezina Trophy nod of his career. He’s likely to finish as a finalist again after finishing with a .925 save percentage and six shutouts. On top of that, Vasilevskiy also registered an equally stellar .929 save percentage while at 5-on-5. In the three-game season series against the Jackets, Vasilevskiy faced 103 shots and and stopped all but three of them. Since his counterpart in the opposite crease must be stellar for Columbus to have any chance, Vasilevskiy will need to continue to show why he’s likely to be a Vezina finalist again.
Bobrovsky must be better than Vasilevskiy
Despite owning two Vezinas and being one of the league’s more reliable regular season starting goalies since joining the Blue Jackets in 2012-13, Bobrovsky’s postseason performances simply haven’t measured up. In the three seasons in which Columbus has been a postseason participant with Bobrovsky in net, his save percentages look like this: .923 (2013-14), .931 (2016-17), and .921 (2017-18). His save percentages in the playoffs in those seasons look like this, respectively: .908, .882, .900. If Bobrovsky continues his stellar play down the stretch of the regular season when he posted a .937 save percentage in his last 10 starts, then Columbus has a chance to cause the Lightning some problems. If his trend of poor postseason play rears its head again, this won’t be a long series.
Don’t get into a run-and-gun contest with the Bolts
Despite being underdogs, the Blue Jackets possess some top-end talent up front in Panarin, Duchene, Pierre-Luc Dubois, and Cam Atkinson. On top of that, they boast an amazing top pair of Seth Jones and Zach Werenski on their blue line. However, getting into a track meet with Tampa Bay would be a bad idea. Although the Lightning own the ability to play a physical game as well, the Jackets will need to establish a strong forecheck in the offensive zone and keep the puck away from the Lightning as much as possible. In other words, slowing the game down could work in Columbus’s favor.
The stars have to show up
Whenever the Lightning’s stars haven’t scored, the rest of their forward group has found a way to pick up the slack. From Columbus’s point of view, their stars absolutely have to show up and carry the load since they don’t have as much depth in their forward group. Atkinson tallied a career-high 41 goals, Dubois continued his ascent into one of the more underrated top line centers in the league, and Panarin continued to dazzle and showed why he’s going to command a hefty raise this summer. Along with Duchene, this group is going to have to carry their weight when it comes to offensive production.
Tampa Bay: Converting regular season mojo into a championship
We’ve witnessed the Lightning morph into a yearly contender for the Stanley Cup over the last five years, but they have yet to get over the hump and finally bring home the second championship in team history. What they accomplished in the regular season this year is nothing short of sensational. However, that 62-win season will be nothing but a mere footnote if they can’t bring home the Cup. Look at the Washington Capitals. They were known as the team that couldn’t get over the hump until they finally did last season. For the Lightning, polishing off this series in short order will go a long way to kick-starting a lengthy playoff run.
Columbus: Will Matt Duchene actually make that trade worth it?
When Duchene was dealt from Colorado to Ottawa in November 2017, the Avalanche took off while the Senators went into a free-fall. After being moved from Ottawa to Columbus at the trade deadline in February, it appeared to be a move that would re-energize Duchene. However, he’s registered just four goals and 12 points in 23 games with Columbus. His underlying possession numbers have also been underwhelming although he finished with 31 goals and 70 assists this season. However, Duchene has only participated in eight playoff games in his career, and for a player looking for a big payday this summer, he needs this playoff run to make a statement.
In summary, the Lightning are heavy favorites, and deservedly so. Between the superstars up front, their excellent forward depth, their balance on the blue line, and elite-level goaltending, Tampa Bay is going to be a tough team for anyone to slow in the playoffs. If not now for this team, then when? In addition, Victor Hedman and backup goalie Louis Domingue returned to the ice and look like they’re on target for a return in Game 1:
Good news Lightning fans: Victor Hedman is on the ice as the #Bolts begin practice today in Brandon.
— Bryan Burns (@BBurnsNHL) April 8, 2019
With a team that is now completely healthy again, the stage is set for a long run.
If the Blue Jackets were playing almost anyone else in the Eastern Conference in the first round, you could make a case for them finally winning their first playoff series. They’re a team that is solid offensively and their top defensive pairing of Jones and Werenski is as good as anyone in the NHL. Despite a rough first half of the season, Bobrovsky has rediscovered his game in recent weeks. The only problem is that he’s going against Vasilevskiy, who’s considered to be the favorite to take home the Vezina. And the big problem for Columbus is that they went all in at the trade deadline, only to be rewarded for it by being paired up with a Lightning team that just won 62 games.
Prediction: Lightning in five
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