Tampa Bay Lightning (62-16-4) vs. Columbus Blue Jackets (47-31-4)
Eastern Conference First Round Series
Best of Seven
Winner Faces Boston/Toronto
The Tampa Bay Lightning had one of the most dominant and historic regular seasons in NHL history. They had three 40 goal scorers and Nikita Kucherov set the record for points in a season but a Russian-born player with 128. They dismantled opponents with their speed, power and skill all in front of an all-world defense led by Victor Hedman and an all-world goaltender in Andrei Vasilevskiy. This team has been a popular pick to win the Stanley Cup and rightfully so; they have everything a cup contender needs in spades. Do the Columbus Blue Jackets, who went balls to the wall at the trade deadline, have a shot at taking out the biggest dog in the yard in the first round? It going to be a challenge needless to say.
First, let’s take a look at their forward groups. The Lightning boast one of the best in the entire league but Blue Jackets isn’t anything to laugh at either. The Lightning have a top-six forward group that consists of Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Brayden Point and Yanni Gourde. That could be considered the best top-six forward core in the league rivaling the power of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Winnipeg Jets. Stamkos, Kucherov and Point each had over 40 goals this year and whenever either of them is on the ice it means trouble for the opposition. Stamkos and Kucherov each have lethal shots and Point is no slouch either. Kucherov is on track to be the best Russian-player in the NHL today. Mix in Johnson, Palat and Gourde and you have a tremendous top-six that can beat you any given way on any given night.
The Lightning’s bottom-six is nothing to laugh at either with the likes of Alex Killorn, Anthony Cirelli, J.T. Miller and Mathieu Joseph all playing on the third and fourth lines. Killorn has been a productive player for the Lightning since he joined the team in the 2012-13 season. Cirelli has drawn some calder buzz this year. Joseph was another great young find by the Lightning and J.T. Miller is your prototypical middle-six forward who can chip in offense when needed. From top to bottom the Lightning’s forward corps has the potential to light up opposing teams. Does Columbus have the talent to match?
While the Lightning are impressive, the Columbus top-six forward corps is nothing to laugh at. Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene, Cam Atkinson, Ryan Dzingel, Pierre-Luc Dubois and Josh Anderson make up a top-six that has a great deal of 7. ill and speed. Panarin is one of the best scorers in the game. Duchene is a proven number one center even with all the controversy that has followed him the past two seasons because of trades. Dubois is a star on the rise and Atkinson is always a threat for 30 goals. Anderson has proved he can be an effective power forward in the league. The Blue Jackets top-six, while not as intimidating as the Lightning’s, is still impressive and can light up the scoreboard on any given night. Panarin had 28 goals this year, Anderson had 27 goals, Atkinson scored a whopping 41, Duchene had 31 goals and Dubois put up 27.
The Columbus bottom-six forward group features their captain Nick Foligno, Boone Jenner, Oliver Bjorkstrand, rookie Alexandre Texier, Brandon Dubinsky and Riley Nash. That third line of Foligno, Jenner and Bjorkstrand would be a capable second line on a lesser team but the fact that Columbus has that as a third line is super impressive. Bjorkstrand, although inconsistent, has a nice shot and Foligno is a prototypical power forward. The Columbus captain will make sure his team doesn’t go down without a fight. Toss in Dubinsky and Nash and the Jackets bottom six isn’t too shabby. So who has the forward edge?
Who’s got the Edge?
The Tampa Bay Lightning. The trio of Stamkos, Kucherov and Point are just too good and will give the Blue Jackets all kinds of problems. The Lightning top-six is arguably the best in the entire league and their bottom-six is extremely lethal as well with sneakily good players like Cirelli, Killorn and Miller. The Blue Jackets have a great forward corps, especially with guys like Panarin and Duchene, but they don’t have nearly enough firepower to beat out the Lightning in this category.
Victor Hedman is the reigning Norris trophy winner and had 54 points this season. Ryan McDonagh is one of the best shutdown defenseman in the game and he has 46 points this season. Mikhail Sergachev is a star on the rise, had 32 points this season and proved he can be an even better defenseman in year two of his career. Round out that six with Dan Girardi, who has been much better than advertised this season, Erik Cernak who has been a pleasant surprise and the capable Jan Rutta and the Lightning have an excellent group of defensemen who can lock down opponents and chip in the offense when needed. Anton Stralman getting back to full health will be something to keep an eye on in this series for sure.
Zach Werenski and Seth Jones are the two powerhouses on defense here. Werenski had 44 points and Jones has 46 points this season. Both have the potential to be Norris trophy winner down the line. Jones is one of the best in the game today at both ends of the ice and Werenski is as lethal as they come on the offensive side of the ice. David Savard and Markus Nutivaara make a very capable second pair which the ability to chip in offense. The Blue Jackets third pairing of Dean Kukan and Scott Harrington rounds out a defense that can rock with the best of them in the league and if Adam McQuaid can stay healthy he can be inserted back into the lineup and give them an extra bit of snarl. The Blue Jackets will need all the help they can get this series. So who has the edge?
Who’s got the Edge?
The saying goes that defense wins championships.The Lightning and Blue Jackets both have defenses capable of locking down the opposition and making life easier for their goaltenders. Before I give my answer here I need to stress how much closer this matchup is then the forward groups. Seth Jones and Zach Werenski are extremely talented and that pair is probably a better pair than any pair of defenseman the Lightning can put put together but this is a case of the whole being better than the sum of its part. The Lightning possess Victor Hedman who at his peak is one of the best overall defenseman in the world. Ryan McDonagh was the Rangers number one defenseman and captain of the Rangers so he is used to being counted on and he has the leadership qualities to boot. Mikhail Sergachev is extremely talented and is only going to get better. One of those guys on each pair means the Lightning have someone to count on on every pair whereas the Blue Jackets get a little thin on their third pairing and their second pairing leaves something to be desired. If Anton Stralman can return, the Lightning only get stronger. The Tampa Bay Lightning get the edge once again.
The Lightning possess an all-world goaltender in Andrei Vasilevskiy. Vasilevskiy took over the crease from Ben Bishop a few seasons ago and he has been nothing but star caliber since he became the Lightning’s de facto number one goaltender. This season he had a .925 save percentage and a 2.40 goals against average. He is tremendously athletic and comes up big in big moments. He’s played deep in the playoffs before and he’s shown he won’t break under the pressure. Vasilevskiy is going to be rock solid for the Lightning throughout the playoffs. THis year Vasilevskiy sported a record of 39-10-4.
The Blue Jackets also possess an all-world goaltender in Sergei Bobrovsky. Aquired from the Philadelphia Flyers a few season ago, Bobrovsky has done absolutely a goaltender can do and won a Vezina trophy along the way. The one thing missing from his resume is a Stanley Cup, same as his counterpart Vasilevskiy. Bobrovsky has been one of the best goaltenders in the regular season over the past few seasons but the knock on him is that he hasn’t been able to get it done in the playoffs. This year he will look to change that. This season he sported a .913 save percentage to go along with 2.58 goals against average. He sported a record of 37-24-1.
Who’s got the Edge?
Just like the last two categories, I have to give this one to the Tampa Bay Lightning. Vasilevskiy is the better goaltender and could very well win the Vezina trophy this year. He has shown up in the playoffs, even if he hasn’t won the big one just yet. Bobrovsky has consistently been a let down in the playoffs and until he proves otherwise this will be a big knock on him. This category is actually a lot closer than most people think since both goaltenders are quite good but the edge goes to the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Tampa Bay Lightning defeat the Columbus Blue Jackets in 5 games
Columbus may steal a game here but this is the Tampa Bay Lightning’s series to lose. They are just deep, and they have arguably one of the best put together teams of all time. With players like Kucherov, Stamkos, Point, Hedman, McDonagh, Sergachev, and an all world goaltender in Vasilevskiy it will just be too much for the Blue Jackets to overcome. The Blue Jackets did all they could to bolster up at the deadline but they run into the buzzsaw that’s the Tampa Bay Lightning. Sorry Columbus, Tampa is about to unleash their full power in the playoffs.