The First Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs begins August 11. Before the NHL postseason resumes play, PHT will preview each of the eight opening round matchups, including Lightning-Blue Jackets
1. Lightning get their chance at redemption
Depending on your outlook this is either the perfect matchup for the Lightning or some kind of cruel joke that will only further their postseason frustration.
A year ago the Lightning were the best team in the NHL, steamrolling the league on their way to a record-tying 62-win regular season that made them the clear Stanley Cup favorites entering the playoffs.
They responded by losing four consecutive games to the No. 8 seed Blue Jackets in what was one of the most stunning postseason upsets in recent memory. Even though this particular Tampa Bay core has yet to win a championship, they have not been total failures in the playoffs. They have consistently been one of the final four teams standing in the playoffs and have always been right on the verge of winning a championship only to let it slip right through their fingers. But last year’s postseason showing was an emphatic failure that is still kind of hard to believe.
Now they have a chance at redemption with a rematch against Columbus.
Make no mistake, the pressure is all on Tampa Bay in this series. This is still a team that is expected to win a championship and is the superior roster on paper. But as the Blue Jackets have shown over the past two years none of that really matters when it comes to their early postseason matchups.
2. The health of Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman could be huge factor for Lightning
There are so many factors that go into winning a championship. Talent. Luck. Getting the right matchups. And, of course, health. That could be the biggest concern for the Lightning at the start of this series as the status of Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman remains uncertain. Stamkos has not played in a game since Feb. 25, while Hedman was injured in the Round-Robin phase of the return to play.
Stamkos is an elite player and obviously makes the Lightning offense significantly more dangerous when he is in the lineup, but they have enough scoring depth up front that they could probably get through this series without him.
Hedman is an entirely different story, though.
Without Stamkos they have other top-line players that can carry the offense. They do not have another Hedman on their blue line. For as good as Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, and Andrei Vasilevskiy may be, Hedman is the engine that drives this machine. He plays huge minutes, he is a force at both ends of the ice, and is one of the league’s best all-around players. There is a noticeable difference in Tampa Bay’s play when he is not there.
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3. Don’t sleep on the Blue Jackets
Even after their offseason free agency exodus that saw Artemi Panarin, Sergei Bobrovsky, Matt Duchene, and Ryan Dzingel leave town, there was still a lot of reason for optimism with this team. It is still a team capable of doing some damage. There is talent here, and in a lot of the right areas.
Let’s start with the strength of the roster and look at their blue line where they boast one of the league’s top defense pairings in Seth Jones and Zach Werenski. Individually each one is a bonafide top-pairing defender, but when you put them together it creates one of the most dynamic and productive duos in the NHL. Including the best-of-five series against Toronto, the Blue Jackets outscored teams by a 40-22 margin this season (it was 5-1 against Toronto) when they were on the ice together during 5-on-5 play. They can dominate a game.
At forward, Cam Atkinson has been one of the league’s most overlooked goal-scorers for several years. Since the start of the 2015-16 season his 139 regular season goals places him 25th in the entire league, sandwiched directly between Filip Forsberg and Patrik Laine. He had a quiet regular season, but had a big qualifying round performance against Toronto.
Then there is Pierre-Luc Dubois, Columbus’ hero from Game 3 against Toronto and one of their most promising youngplayers. He just turned 22 years old a little more than a month ago and is already blossoming into a top-line, two-way center. He is already a tank of a forward and is just now entering his prime years in the league.
4. Another big moment for Joonas Korpisalo
There was no bigger question mark in Columbus at the start of the season than goaltending. They had just lost what was one of the league’s best goalies (a two-time Vezina Trophy winner) and were replacing him with two unproven starters in Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins.
It would be an understatement to say they both exceeded expectations this season.
While the Blue Jackets are a stingy team defensively and boast an elite top-pairing, goaltending still played a crucial role in the team’s ability to stay in the playoff hunt and get through Toronto in the qualifying round. Even though Korpisalo was briefly sat down against the Maple Leafs he still finished the series with a .956 save percentage and two shutouts, including the deciding Game 5 series clincher. They may need him to be even better against Tampa Bay.
What makes his play even more important is they may not have Merzlikins to turn to if needed. He was injured in the Toronto series and it is not yet known how long he will be sidelined.
5. Prediction: Lightning in 6 games
The Blue Jackets are a good team, and were a great story this season to overcome all of the free agent departures and the injuries that could have sunk them even lower. But Tampa Bay is not going to let this happen again. They will find a way, get their redemption, and maybe start their run toward the championship that keeps eluding them.
No. 2 Tampa Bay Lightning vs. No. 7 Columbus Blue Jackets
Tuesday, Aug. 11: Columbus at Tampa Bay, 3 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Thursday, Aug. 13: Columbus at Tampa Bay, 3 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Saturday, Aug. 15: Tampa Bay at Columbus, 7:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Monday, Aug. 17: Tampa Bay at Columbus, 3 p.m. ET – NBCSN
*Wednesday, Aug. 19: Columbus at Tampa Bay – TBD
*Friday, Aug. 21: Tampa Bay at Columbus – TBD
*Saturday, Aug. 22: Columbus at Tampa Bay – TBD
• Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round schedule
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.