Entering the post-season as prohibitive favorites to win the Stanley Cup, it should go without saying that the Tampa Bay Lightning skate into Round One with the odds heavily in their favor against the Columbus Blue Jackets. The season series makes this a brutal draw for the Blue Jackets, too, who went all-in at the trade deadline in an effort to take the franchise’s first playoff step forward. Columbus has yet to win a round in the post-season and few are going to like their chances against a Tampa Bay club team that pummelled the Blue Jackets in the regular season.
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
When you go down the stretch having locked up the Presidents’ Trophy, having only lost back-to-back games in regulation once this season and sitting within striking distance of some of the greatest regular-season teams of all-time, it goes without saying you’re having a great year. The Lightning’s 2018-19 regular season was not a season as much as it was a coronation.
It’s remarkable, actually, what this team has done. It went into the final month of the season not only atop the NHL standings, but also first in power play, penalty killing, goal differential and goals scored and fourth in goals against. The Bolts have four lines that mesh better than any other in the league and a goaltender that was fighting for the best save percentage in the league.
They’re almost as good on the road as they are at home, largely because of an explosive offense chock full of elite producers who are having career seasons. Tampa Bay ended up with a goal differential 40 better than the next best team while finishing 21 points ahead of the second-place team in the standings.
But with history as their only competition and home ice advantage through the playoffs booked long ago, the Lightning had almost nothing to play for in the final third of the season. That did not stop them from keeping their foot directly on the gas, a strategy that leaves them vulnerable to fatigue in the post-season. (But, then again, they’ll also go into the playoffs playing at a high level and with all sorts of confidence.) The Lightning could very well finish the season with the Hart, Art Ross (Nikita Kucherov), Vezina (Andrei Vasilevskiy), Selke (Brayden Point) and Jack Adams (Jon Cooper) winners, but it will all be for naught if those trophies aren’t buttressing the Stanley Cup in this year’s team picture. The pressure to finish the job will be immense.
X-Factor: The Lightning enter this post-season as the prohibitive favorite to win the Stanley Cup, but this is not an organization that always handles that kind of pressure well. After falling into an 0-2 deficit to the Washington Capitals in the Eastern Conference final last year, the Lightning clawed their way back in the series and were one win away from advancing to the Stanley Cup final before their vaunted offense dried up and was shut down in the final two games of the series. It’s nothing tangible, but there’s a notion the Lightning could choke in the playoffs. It’s a reputation it can only shed by winning.
COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
This post-season is certainly fraught with peril for the Blue Jackets, because the stakes have never been higher. The team will likely lose cornerstones Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky to unrestricted free agency in the summer, and trade deadline acquisition Matt Duchene could join them, too. Of course, the players themselves would love to just win a series – something the franchise has never done.
From the outside, Columbus looks like a playoff team: the Jackets play a heavy game laced with skill, helmed by a Stanley Cup-winning coach in John Tortorella (though it has been 15 years since ‘Torts’ lifted the trophy in Tampa Bay). In Seth Jones and Zach Werenski, the Jackets have an enviable top end to their blueline corps, and both guys can move the puck up ice. There is nice depth up front, and the team has all the motivation in the world to finally break through with a first-round win.
However, Bobrovsky has historically been as bad in the playoffs as he has been good in the regular season – and this year he wasn’t even good during the first 82 games. The two-time Vezina Trophy-winner has never won a post-season series in his NHL career dating back to his early days with the Philadelphia Flyers. For much of this season, the big Russian has underperformed, and it’s hard not to wonder if his mind is already on the next city he plans on working in.
And for all the leadership Columbus has, this group has not exactly been clutch. The Blue Jackets won the first two games of their series against Washington – on the road – last year before losing four straight, including three at home.
Duchene’s production dropped precipitously after he came over from Ottawa, and outside of Brandon Dubinsky and depth D-man Adam McQuaid, there isn’t much playoff experience on the roster.
X-Factor: He’s one of the most dynamic players in the league, and even if he leaves in the summer, Artemi Panarin will be the key to whatever success Columbus can earn in the playoffs. The ultra-talented left winger is the team’s leading scorer and hasn’t shown the same drop-off as Sergei Bobrovsky during a tumultuous time. So far in his career, Panarin has put up two impressive playoff showings and one dud: he’s been a point-per-gamer with the 2016 Blackhawks and 2018 Jackets while struggling for points with the 2017 Hawks. If Columbus is going anywhere, Panarin is going to be the guy driving the bus on offense.
Oct. 13, 2018 – TB 8, CBJ 2
Jan. 8, 2019 – TB 4, CBJ 0
Feb. 18, 2019 – TB 5, CBJ 1
Wednesday, April 10, 7 p.m.: Blue Jackets at Lightning
Friday, April 12, 7 p.m.: Blue Jackets at Lightning
Sunday, April 14, 7 p.m.: Lightning at Blue Jackets
Tuesday, April 16, 7 p.m.: Lightning at Blue Jackets
*Friday, April 19, TBD: Blue Jackets at Lightning
*Sunday, April 21, TBD: Lightning at Blue Jackets
*Tuesday, April 23, TBD: Blue Jackets at Lightning
(All games listed in Eastern Time)
Fan Favorite: Tampa Bay Lightning
THN Series Pick: Tampa Bay Lightning in five