The Tampa Bay Lightning were the NHL’s best team almost all season long and didn’t have to deal with too much adversity. The Columbus Blue Jackets, on the other hand, had an inconsistent season, an active trade deadline and a goalie who managed to be clutch down the stretch to help his team clinch a playoff berth late in the regular season.
The regular season has come to an end and it’s time to start the NHL’s second season, also known as the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs. Once the playoffs start, anything can happen like the Blue Jackets pulling out an improbable series win over the top-seeded team to win their first playoff series in team history, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves here.
The Series Rundown
The Bolts were the most consistent team in the NHL all season, which helped them to win the Presidents’ Trophy (team with the most points). The lineup is stacked with speed, skill and goal scoring ability and that makes them one of the harder teams to defend in the League. Their special teams were both ranked first overall and they got good goaltending from Andrei Vasilevskiy and Louis Domingue all season. They have the experience and depth on the roster that could help them make a long run in the postseason. If they have one weakness, it is that they can lose focus at times during a game especially when they have a big lead.
The Columbus Blue Jackets decided to go all in at the trade deadline to make a push to Imake the playoffs and make it past the first round this year. They acquired Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, Adam McQuaid and Keith Kincaid. The Blue Jackets managed to score goals this season, but didn’t have the easiest time keeping them out of their own net due to poor goaltending, at times. The team is going to need to improve their power play since it was a dismal 15.4% in the regular season to go with the second ranked penalty kill at 85%, just behind the Lightning. Sergei Bobrovsky has struggled in the playoffs in previous years, but he is red-hot going into them this season, and the Blue Jackets will need him to have a shot at winning this series.
Special Teams Breakdown
The Lightning had the best power play and penalty kill in the regular season. The power play finished at 28.2% while the penalty kill operated at 85%. The Lightning vastly improved the penalty kill from just a season ago when they finished 28th overall (76.1%). The power play is a deadly one featuring Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point, just to name a few players. The player movement and puck movement is what makes the power play so successful with the puck being moved quick and the players hardly ever standing still. It can be poetry in motion at its best.
The Blue Jackets had one of the worst power plays in the League (15.4%), but finished just percentage points behind the Lightning for best penalty kill (85%). It’s no surprised on where the penalty kill finished considering the how good the defense and goaltending can be when they are on their game. The power play will need to be way better in the postseason or it could mean another first round loss for the team.
Key Players for Each Team
Nikita Kucherov has been the Bolts’ best player all season long and that will need to continue into the postseason. The more focus on Kucherov means the less focus on his own linemates and players on other lines. Kucherov brings a lot to the table offensively with his speed and skill, which has been on display on a nightly basis. If Kucherov’s line can produce then it will create matchup problems for John Tortorella and the Blue Jackets coaching staff.
Artemi Panarin is set to become a free agency this summer, and a good postseason run would help him get even more money than expected. Panarin has been the Blue Jackets’ best player all season long. He led the team in assists (41) and points (87). He should want to continue his regular season success into the postseason so he can help his team get their first ever playoff series win.
The x-factor in this series for the Lightning is going to be the play of the special teams. The Blue Jackets may have a poor power play, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t score while on it. The Lightning will have to find a way to solve the Blue Jackets’ solid penalty kill, and that could be done with good zone entries and movement on the power play like they usually do.
The x-factor for the Blue Jackets will be goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. Bobrovsky is an unrestricted free agent, who wants a good playoff showing to up his chances of getting a good long-term deal. He is also looking to lead the Blue Jackets past the Lighting and that will be a tough order to fill. Bobrovsky needs to find a way to continue to be the hot goalie that led the Blue Jackets to a playoff berth down the stretch. He had four shutouts and a .951 she percentage in the final nine games that he played in the regular season.
The Lightning Win the Series If…
The team plays the simple hockey that they’ve been playing all year. There’s no need to change the game plan that made you the best team in the NHL the past season. They will want to use their speed in transition and make the defenders back into their zone instead of being able to stand at the blue line. The Bolts will be forced to work for time and space so they can’t get frustrated and start turning the puck over because that is often disastrous. Vasilevskiy will need to make the routine saves and possibly some highlight reel saves.
The Blue Jackets Win the Series If…
They can manage to find a way to cash in on their chances early in games. The Blue Jackets will want to get off to fast starts in these games and not look back. Yes, the Lightning have blown some big leads at times, but they are not a team you want to have to mount a comeback against in every game of a potential seven game series. Bobrovsky will need to be huge because the Lightning are so deep and could cause potential matchup problems for the Blue Jackets. He will need t be able to hold his team in games so they have a chance each and every night.
Lightning-Blue Jackets Series Prediction
The Lightning take the series in five games. The Lightning won all three regular season matchups and fairly easily. The Bolts are just too deep and too talented for the Blue Jackets, who will be out in the first round again for the third straight year. The Blue Jackets also had to make a stretch run just to clinch a spot in the playoffs and that could cost them.