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]
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
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.
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.
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.
LIGHTNING IN 5. It’s possible the Blue Jackets catch the Lightning daydreaming. Tampa is just too good though.
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Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck