After a historic regular-season where they tied the record for wins in a single season (62), the Lightning have established themselves as the favorites to win the Stanley Cup. They have enjoyed a nice stretch of success in the Stamkos era, making the playoffs five of the last six seasons and making four conference finals since 2011, including one appearance in the Cup Finals. However, this year looks like their best opportunity to break through and finally win their first Cup since 2004; in fact, with how good the Lightning are, it may be Cup or bust.
Meanwhile, this is the most successful stretch in Blue Jackets history, having made the postseason for the third consecutive season. However, they have yet to do anything in the playoffs, having only won five playoff games in their 19th year of existence, the only franchise that has yet to win a playoff series. After their well-documented collapse against the Capitals in last year’s playoffs (blowing a 2-0 series lead coming home), the Jackets now look to take down Goliath and win their first series in franchise history, and potentially more.
John Tortorella was the head coach of the Lightning when they won their only Cup back in 2004. Now, as coach of the Blue Jackets, this is the first time he will coach in a playoff series against his former team. Will the Lightning steamroll past their former coach on their quest to cement their legacy as one of the greatest teams of all time? Or, can Tortorella pull something from up his sleeve and lead the Blue Jackets to defeat the behemoth and win their first ever playoff series?
There are elite offenses, and then there’s the Lightning. During the season, they scored a staggering 3.89 goals per game, far more than any other team (Calgary and San Jose come in second at 3.52 goals/game). In an MVP-caliber season, Nikita Kucherov tallied a staggering 41 goals and 87 assists for 128 points, running away with the Art Ross Trophy for league’s highest scorer. His linemates, Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point, picked up 98 and 92 points, respectively. Meanwhile, they roll four lines that each pose their own threats to score, making them incredibly deep and balanced.
The Blue Jackets have an offense that can score a lot of goals but looks so pedestrian in comparison to Tampa’s attack. They average 3.12 goals per game, good for 12th in the league. They also boast a surprising amount of depth, with seven players that scored at least twenty goals this season. Obviously, the offense goes through their star playmaker in Artemi Panarin, but threats like Cam Atkinson, Matt Duchene, Josh Anderson, Ryan Dzingel, and Pierre-Luc Dubois can all chip in. They’re going to need their whole offense playing at the top of their game to keep up with Tampa’s high-flying attack, or it could get ugly quickly.
The Lightning are also one of the best defensive teams in the league, only allowing 2.70 goals against per game (7th in the league). They boast an embarrassment of riches on the back end, led by one of the league’s best defenseman in Victor Hedman. Behind him, another legitimate number one defenseman in Ryan McDonagh, and a mix of veteran leadership and emerging young talent. Their only exploitable weakness might be in some inexperience with guys like Sergachev and Cirelli on the third pairing, but if they can play up to potential there will be little to expose there.
The Jackets also have a defense capable of shutting opponents down but have lost a little depth to injury. Still, they allow only 2.goals per game, 11th in the league. Young stud Seth Jones leads the way, paired with another good young defenseman in Zach Werenski (although he has not been as good as he was during his stellar rookie campaign). However, the Jackets have lost both Ryan Murray and the veteran deadline acquisition Adam McQuaid, cutting into their defensive depth. While the Blue Jackets are still more than capable in shutting down their opponents, stopping Tampa’s offense will be a whole other animal, especially with limited depth.
As if Tampa didn’t need another strength, Andrei Vasilevskiy has put together another remarkable campaign, tallying a 2.40 goals against average and a .925 save percentage. Unsurprisingly, he also finished first in wins with 39. However, he has slowed down just a little bit towards the end of the season, but he could pick it right back up for the playoffs.
Meanwhile, the goalie with the second-highest win total will be 200 feet away from him in Sergei Bobrovsky. He was inconsistent in the first part of the year but really turned it on in the home stretch, finishing with a 2.58 GAA and a .913 save percentage. If Bobrovsky can play at his highest potential, he is arguably the best goalie in the league, more than capable of stealing some games and even a series. However, he has notoriously struggled when it comes to the postseason, and in fact, has allowed at least three goals in all his playoff starts with the Blue Jackets. For that, I’ll ride with the more consistent commodity in Vasilevskiy.
The Lightning own the both the league’s best power play and penalty kill. They boast a 28.2% PP and a 85.0% PK, combining for a ridiculous 113.2% (for reference, 100% is considered average).
The Jackets answer back with the second-best PK, also at 85.0%. However, they also struggle mightily on the power play, only converting 15.4% of the time, 28th in the league. Their special teams even each other out to 100.4%, a decent tally. Compared with Tampa, however, it gives a decisive edge to the Lightning.
The Lightning’s Jon Cooper has had great success since taking over the team in 2013. This will mark his fifth trip to the postseason, and he has already won seven rounds in his four previous appearances. His Lightning have made three of the last four conference finals, and made the Cup Finals in 2015. He has already assembled a 36-28 playoff record.
Meanwhile, John Tortorella coached the Lightning to a Stanley Cup in 2004. This marks his eleventh trip to the postseason as a coach, previously winning eight rounds, although his last victory in a series occurred in 2013 when he was with the Rangers. The Jackets have only won three playoff games under his watch. Still, the Cup on his resume makes me give him the slight edge in the coaching department. I have to give Columbus something, right?
Advantage: Blue Jackets
Oct 13-Lightning 8, Blue Jackets 2 in Tampa
Jan 8-Lightning 4, Blue Jackets 0 in Tampa
Feb 18-Lightning 5, Blue Jackets 1 in Columbus
Lightning: 3-0 in season series, 2-0 at home, 1-0 at Columbus (outscored CBJ 17-3)
Blue Jackets: 0-3 in season series, 0-1 at home, 0-2 at Tampa
COMING INTO THE PLAYOFFS…
The Lightning won 11 of their last 14, including 10 of those in regulation. They won their last 2 games.
The Blue Jackets won 7 of their last 8, outscoring opponents 35-14 in this stretch. They won their last 2 games.
Advantage: Blue Jackets, slightly
The Blue Jackets have never won more than two games in a series, let alone a series. Meanwhile, Tampa’s last three postseason trips have seen at least a conference finals appearance. The two have never met in a playoff series, however, Tampa dominated the season series. John Tortorella has also never faced his former team in a playoff series.
As a Jackets fan, this is the series I feared most. My heart believes the Jackets can pull off the upset and shock the hockey world. However, here’s how my brain thinks the series ends up: the Jackets will throw everything they have and it will give Tampa some trouble. They’ll win at least a game and give the folks of Columbus some hope. However, the Lightning prove to be much too deep and powerful, and eventually just overwhelm the Jackets. Jarmo’s all-in gamble ends with another first round exit.
Prediction: Lightning in 5
GAME ONE-Wed, 7pm, USA (nat’l), FS SUN (Bolts), FS OH (Jackets)