Lightning vs. Blue Jackets: PHT 2019 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

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Sometimes you can’t help but think that we’re all just writing off the Columbus Blue Jackets without one puck being dropped in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

But then you give your head a smack, recompose yourself and realize that (insert deity here) might struggle against the behemoth that the Tampa Lightning have become.

Tampa is simply that good, and the reason why the secondary race (other than making the playoffs) was to finish in the first wildcard and avoid the unstoppable force in the first round. Sure, there might be that immovable object later down the line for Tampa, but Columbus certainly isn’t it. And that’s a bit of a shame given everything Jarmo Kekalainen did to improve his team (despite giving up nearly a full draft and a couple of nice farm pieces).

You see, John Tortorella can exclaim it from the top of Mount Everest that his team is up for the challenge. One, he has to. Two, well, he has to. But even then it’s a stretch.

There are levels to this, and Tampa is one that’s two or three floors above Columbus.

I mean, we’re talking about the far-and-away best offense in the NHL this year. We’re talking about a team with top point producer, a team with three guys with 40-plus goals, and a goalie that eats shooters for breakfast and snacks on the league’s best snipers.

Columbus needed to mortgage their future and take on massive risk by not trading pending unrestricted free agents in Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky at the trade deadline.

Tampa didn’t set an alarm that day.

Oh, and Tampa won 62 games, tying for the most ever in an NHL season. They never lost more than two in a row all season, and that only happened twice itself. There might not be a taller order in sports at the moment than the one that lies before Columbus.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

SCHEDULE
Wednesday, April 10, 7 p.m.: Columbus @ Tampa Bay | USA, SN360, TVAS
Friday, April 12, 7 p.m.: Columbus @ Tampa Bay | CNBC, SN360, TVAS
Sunday, April 14, 7 p.m.: Tampa Bay @ Columbus | NBCSN, SN360, TVAS
Tuesday, April 16, 7 p.m.: Tampa Bay @ Columbus | CNBC, SN360, TVAS
*Friday, April 19, TBD: Columbus @Tampa Bay | TBD
*Sunday, April 21, TBD: Tampa Bay @ Columbus | TBD
*Tuesday, April 23, TBD: Columbus @ Tampa Bay | TBD

FORWARDS

BLUE JACKETS: It seems almost unfair to compare the two.

The Blue Jackets accounted for 256 goals this season, 12th most in the NHL if you’re a glass-half-full type of person. Cam Atkinson had a lot to do with it as he tucked 41 himself. Artemi Panarin had 28, and Pierre-Luc Dubois and Josh Anderson each bagging 27 each. Oliver Bjorkstrand was fifth on the team and rounded out the 20-plus goal men with 23.

Columbus will continue to ride their top two lines (Panarin-Duchene-Atkinson and Dzingel-Dubois-Anderson) for consistent scoring, and they’ll likely have to produce even better to beat Columbus, and a lot of it may need to come five-on-five. Columbus had the 28th-ranked power play, which surprisingly isn’t the worst among playoff teams — it was better than both the New York Islanders and Nashville Predators.

LIGHTNING: Nikita. Kucherov. Say it with me now… Seriously though, Kucherov did things this season and no one had done in the salary cap era. Perhaps he felt snubbed that he didn’t get the Hart last season, and boy did he come with a vengeance. Kucherov scored 128 points to establish a new career mark, besting his previous total by 28 points in two more games played. He beat Connor McDavid by 12 points in the Art Ross race.

And we’ve only talked about one player so far

The Lightning had three players with 40-plus goals, with Kucherov and Brayden Point each scoring 41 and Steven Stamkos leading the pack with 45. Ten of their 12 forward had double-digit goals, with seven having more than 18 apiece. They led the league with 319 goals-for, 30 more than anyone else (and the only team to eclipse 300). They led the with a 12.2 percent shooting percentage. They led the league with a power play that ran at 28 percent. They just led the league. In everything that matters. It’s a brilliant offense.

ADVANTAGE: LIGHTNING. I mean, if there’s one series that this is most clear in, it’s this one. It’s the Lightning by miles upon miles. The best scorer, the best offense and the best power play. It almost seems unfair and barring something divine, the Lightning aren’t going to be held at bay.

DEFENSE

BLUE JACKETS: Seth Jones and Zach Werenski will be leaned upon heavily as they shoulder a massive task in trying to shut down Tampa. The pair are a formidable shutdown duo, for sure, but the depth starts to fall off after that.

Jones plays nearly 26 minutes a night, with Werenski at nearly 23. From there, every other defenseman on the team is under 20 minutes aside from the injured Ryan Murray.

Not having Murray stings. He’s missed the past 24 games with an upper-body injury and won’t be available for Game 1, at least. Murray had 29 points in 56 games prior to getting injured, so they’ll be missing some production back there, too.

LIGHTNING: Victor Hedman practiced on Monday and it appears he might be ready to play in Game 1 after suffering an injury on March 30, forcing him to miss the last week of action.

Hedman’s presence is crucial. His size, ability to play monster minutes and in all situations is a big key to this juggernaut of a team. But Tampa is deep, no doubt. They finished eighth in fewest goals-against and can also rely on some offensive production from their back end. If there’s a weakness, it might be in the third pairing of Mikhail Sergachev and Jan Rutta.

ADVANTAGE: LIGHTNING. They have better depth and better scoring from the back end, both things that are paramount in the playoffs.

GOALTENDING

BLUE JACKETS: This is where the series could be decided.

If Sergei Bobrovsky and play out of his mind, Columbus has a snowball’s chance in hell, which is an improvement. If struggles, shut off the lights and head home. It’s over.

Bob’s season one of the worst of his career, statistically, with a .913 save percentage — a number that was made to look respectable as he closed out the season with multiple shutouts. Those numbers just won’t cut it against an offense of Tampa’s ilk.

LIGHTNING: Vasilevskiy is in a league of his own.

Like it or not, Vasilevskiy is probably winning the Vezina this year and he’s simply an elite goaltender who got a lot more rest down the stretch than he did last year. That means a more fresh Vasilevskiy. A more sharp Vasilevskiy. A quicker Vasilevskiy. That’s a goalie that’s tough to beat.

ADVANTAGE: LIGHTNING. Vasilevskiy brings it every night and hardly has a bad day at the office. He’s comfortable taking a lot of shots and he’s not going to be facing down a great power play. And Bobrovsky is hit or miss these days. And even if he hits, can he really deal with everything the Lightning will throw at him?

ONE BIG QUESTION FOR EACH TEAM

Can the Blue Jackets outgun the Lightning?

That’s really what it will come down to here. The Blue Jackets need to take advantage of every single opportunity they’re afforded and then play defense (tight gap, high pressure) like they’ve never done before.

Can they keep the status quo?

Basically, if the regular season Lightning shows up, this one is over before it begins. The Lightning need to remain the same team in the playoffs. They have a lot of pressure on them. They’ve earned it, given their season, and now need to respond to it.

PREDICTION

LIGHTNING IN 5. It’s possible the Blue Jackets catch the Lightning daydreaming. Tampa is just too good though.

MORE PREVIEWS:
• Bruins vs. Maple Leafs
 Sharks vs. Golden Knights
Flames vs. Avalanche
Jets vs. Blues
Islanders vs. Penguins
Predators vs. Stars
Capitals vs Hurricanes


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

PHT Morning Skate: Bolts need Vasilevskiy; Isles should be buyers

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• The Flyers are rallying behind Oskar Lindblom after his Ewing’s sarcoma diagnosis. (NBC Sports Philadelphia)

• The Bolts need Andrei Vasilevskiy to play like he’s one of the best in the world again. (Tampa Times)

• Coaches have been getting fired for reasons both known and unknown. (Los Angeles Times)

• The Blackhawks keep finding ways to hit new lows this season. (NBC Sports Chicago)

• Jim Benning was looking to trade Sven Baertschi, but he was forced to put him on waivers. (Vancouver Sun)

• A London Knights physiotherapist helped save Tucker Tynan’s life. (CTV News)

Tom Wilson has become a new-age power forward. (Sportsnet)

• Four players from the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association will play in the ECHL All-Star classic. (The Ice Garden)

• If good teams don’t go on long losing streaks, what does that mean for the Edmonton Oilers? (Edmonton Journal)

• Referee Tim Peel is likely done for the season after suffering a broken leg. (RMNB)

• Islanders GM Lou Lamorielllo should dip into the rental market this season. (GothamSN)

• Alexis Lafreniere is hoping to become the next future first overall pick to turn in an incredible performance at the World Juniors. (Featurd)

• It’s still too early to say that Jack Eichel is among the greatest players. (Rotoworld)

• It’s time for the Anaheim Ducks to rebuild. (Spector’s Hockey)

• Former Lightning head coach Steve Ludzik needs a liver transplant. (Tampa Times)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

The Buzzer: Kane’s hat trick; Staal’s milestone night

Patrick Kane #88 of the Chicago Blackhawks celebrates with Jonathan Toews
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Three Stars

1) Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks

Kane surpassed Sidney Crosby for the scoring lead this decade with 16 days left in the 2010s. Since Jan. 1, 2010, Kane has 791 points (311G, 480A), while Crosby has 788 points (296G, 492A). No. 88 recorded his sixth NHL hat trick in Chicago’s 5-3 victory over Minnesota. The Blackhawks have a long way to go if they want to have a realistic shot at the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but a victory against a surging division rival is a good place to start.

2) Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg Jets

On a football Sunday, the Jets scored a touchdown in their 7-3 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers. Scheifele played a huge part with his three-point performance featuring a goal and two assists as he extended his individual point streak to six games. Neal Pionk added three assists, including two power-play helpers. The top four teams in the Western Conference (Blues, Avalanche, Jets, Stars) currently reside in the Central Division and playoff positioning will be crucial as each team eyes a lengthy postseason run.

3) Eric Staal, Minnesota Wild

Staal became the 89th player in NHL history to have 1,000 career points when he tallied a power-play goal against Chicago Sunday. After a dreadful 4-9 start to the season, the Wild have climbed up the standings with a 12-4-5 record in their past 21 games. The alternate captain leads Minnesota with 26 points, including four goals in the previous three games.

Other notable performances from Sunday:

  • Anze Kopitar’s two-goal performance in the Kings’ 4-2 victory against the Red Wings helped him surpass the iconic Wayne Gretzky for fourth place on the franchise’s all-time scoring list. Kopitar picked up his 918th and 919th point in his 1038th game.
  • Blake Wheeler finished with three points, including a goal and an assist during a four-goal barrage spanning 4:17.

Highlights of the Night

Staal etched his name in the NHL record books with this one-time blast

William Karlsson won an important foot race before Reilly Smith slid a cross-ice pass over to Jonathan Marchessault

Factoids

  • A total of 33 goals were scored across four contests Sunday for an average of 8.25 per game [NHL PR].
  • The Jets scored four goals in a span of five minutes or less for the fourth time in franchise history [NHL PR].
  • The Jets’ four goals in a span of 4:17 are their second-fastest scored in a game in franchise history, behind the mark of 3:50 set on Nov. 18, 2017 [NHL PR].
  • Canucks’ Bo Horvat has won an NHL-high 414 faceoffs this season [Sportsnet Stats].

NHL Scores

Winnipeg Jets 7, Philadelphia Flyers 3

Chicago Blackhawks 5, Minnesota Wild 3

Los Angeles Kings 4, Detroit Red Wings 2

Vegas Golden Knights 6, Vancouver Canucks 3

Sabres demote under-performing center Mittelstadt to minors

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres have assigned under-performing second-year center Casey Mittelstadt to the minors.

The demotion to Rochester of the AHL was made Sunday, coming a day following a 3-2 overtime loss at the New York Islanders in which Mittelstadt was a healthy scratch for the third time in four games.

The 21-year-old has four goals and five assists in 31 games this season, and limited to just a goal and an assist in his past 21. Buffalo selected the play-making center with the eighth pick in the 2017 draft following his senior year in high school.

He then signed with Buffalo and jumped directly to the NHL in making his Sabres debut immediately following his freshman college season at Minnesota.

Mittelstadt has failed to play up to early projections of developing into Buffalo’s second-line center. He has 17 goals and 22 assists for 39 points in 114 career NHL games.

Players hope U.S.-Canada rivalry game helps spawn pro league

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HARTFORD, Conn. — The United States women’s hockey team beat Canada 4-1 on Saturday night, with players hoping the first in a series of five games between the international rivals will help kindle the public’s interest in both their sport and their fight off the ice for better professional opportunities.

Canada’s Victoria Bach and the Megan Keller of the U.S. traded power-play goals in the first period, before Amanda Kessel put the U.S. on top for good with a player advantage in the second. Abbe Roque’s backhand in the period gave the US a 3-1 lead and Alex Carpenter beat Genevieve Lacasse for the final goal 1:15 seconds later.

More than 7,000 fans showed up for the international competition, which comes after more than 200 members of what has since become the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association announced in May they would not play professionally in North America during the 2019-2020 season.

“I think it’s important for people to watch us play and see the level of talent and entertainment that’s out there,” Kessel said. “It’s getting that understanding that we need to help get us a place to play year-round so that people can see us more than five times a year.”

The women are seeking a professional league that provides a living wage, health insurance, infrastructure and support for training. The Canadian Women’s Hockey League shut down in the spring after 12 years of operation, leaving only the five-team National Women’s Hockey League, where most players make less than $10,000 a season.

“The product is there,” Kessel said. “The people to watch it are there. We just need a structure set in place.”

Sarah Nurse, a forward for Team Canada, whose cousin Kia Nurse plays for New York in the WNBA, said players are hoping to get support from the NHL, which has, so far, expressed little interest in investing in a women’s league.

“We can look at (the WNBA) and see that women’s sports have value and they have a place in this world,” said Nurse, who made $2,000 last season playing in the CWHL. “That is definitely a model that we look to.”

The rivalry series was created after the Four Nations Cup in Sweden was canceled when top Swedish players pulled out of national team events due to concerns over their salary and working conditions.

Without a viable pro league, players who are out of college have been training on their own at random rinks across North America in between gatherings of the national teams or training sessions and exhibitions sponsored by the players association.

Canada won two of those over the US in Pittsburgh last month.

But the lack of consistent competition can stunt the players’ development, especially when it comes to be being prepared for world and Olympic competitions, the players said.

“It’s very unfortunate,” Nurse said. “Games are when we truly get better and test out our skills, so it’s unfortunate that we don’t have more games to play.”

Cayla Barnes, who plays defense for the U.S. team and Boston College, said she and the other college players on the national teams understand what is going on and appreciate what the older players are doing.

“They are putting so much on the line for the younger generations,” she said. “Not just for us college kids who are coming up, but for U-8, U-10 girls who are coming up so they have opportunities later on. So I think all of us who are younger are trying to support them in whatever way we can.”

Hundreds of girls wearing their youth hockey jerseys attended the game, chanting “U-S-A” as the final seconds ticked off the clock.

“I want to be like them, like in the Olympics when I get older,” said 14-year-old Leila Espirito Santo, of Glastonbury “I started playing when I was in fourth grade and I wasn’t the best, but watching them play made me want to be better. It showed me I could do it.”

The teams will meet again on Tuesday in Moncton, New Brunswick. Other games part of the 2019-20 Rivalry Series are slated for Feb. 3 and Feb. 5 in Vancouver, British Columbia, and Feb. 8 in Anaheim, California.