The Columbus Blue Jackets (47-31-4) will face the Tampa Bay Lightning (62-16-4) in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Lightning, of course, will have home-ice advantage with the puck drop for Game 1 scheduled for shortly after 7:00 PM on Wednesday night.
The CBJ assembled their best array of talent in the franchise’s history. However, despite the stacked deck of cards, the inconsistent play in the 2018-19 NHL Regular Season has them as the last team to squeak into the playoffs. Their reward: A seven-game series against a 128-point juggernaut.
While many (for good reason) believe the Jackets are a heavy underdog in this series, let’s first take a deep dive into Columbus’ roster and figure out some things that could realistically happen if the Jackets happen to go into shock-the-world mode:
Three Players Who Could Potentially Play At A World-Class Level In The Postseason:
Panarin led Columbus in the points (87) and assists (59) categories along with 28 goals. The Breadman has a high ceiling for his playoff worth.
Bread has the speed and stamina to take over a game, attracting several defenders to him while opening up the ice for his linemates. Maybe it’s not so ironic that peak Panarin is very similar to his former teammate Patrick Kane. If Panarin starts catching fire, it might just put the Lightning in a precarious position to advance.
The CBJ traded for Duchene just three days before the trade deadline. He combined for 31 goals and 39 assists, showing once again why he’s a highly-regarded center in the National Hockey League.
Duchene has an uncanny making-something-out-of-nothing ability. He’s the guy who could have two defenders draped on him while on the boards and magically escape to make a fantastic play. Duchene, in my humble opinion, is a matchup nightmare for the opposition, as he can make things happen regardless of how well he’s defended. The CBJ faithful will finally get to see their big addition play in the games that matter the most.
Goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky started slow, but finished strong, most notably recording nine shutouts on the campaign for the CBJ.
Bobrovsky, at this point, could be the NHL poster boy for polarizing players in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. He currently has a save percentage of .898 and a Goals Allowed Average of 3.37 in three playoff appearances with Columbus. However, when watching the tape, there have been at least a handful of goals he’s allowed that have been uncharacteristic, at least when you compare them to his regular-season play. Is “Playoff Bob” a real stigma, or can Bob just be Bob and and thrive in the playoffs this year? We’ll just have to wait and see…
Goals, Goals, And More Goals
Atkinson led the Columbus Blue Jackets with 41 goals, tying the Rick Nash for the most goals in a season for the club.
Atkinson has the “it factor” when it comes to scoring goals. He scores in all sorts of different ways. Whether it’s utilizing his speed and skill in space, finding an open area on the ice, deflecting a puck, or surrounding the blue paint, Cam is always doing what he can to add a goal to his resume. While there’s no doubt the Lightning’s roster is superior to that of the Blue Jackets, if Cam Atkinson finds his scoring groove it could significantly help turn the tables in favor of Columbus.
Bjorkstrand appeared to be a fringe player for the CBJ roster. He was a guy that never seemed to be able to find his scoring touch on a consistent basis. That narrative changed quickly, with OBJ scoring 9 goals in the last 10 games of the season for Columbus to earn himself a career high of 23 goals.
There’s one phrase that comes to mind every time Oliver Bjorkstrand puts the puck in the back of the net: “The goalie had no chance”.
Bjorkstrand has an absurdly-quick release, with the puck seemingly being inexplicably shot out of a cannon when it leaves his stick. It’s like when you leave Aaron Rodgers and extra second it the pocket. There are times the defense simply can’t do anything about it, except to marvel in what just happened. If OBJ continues to be red hot into the playoffs, it could be a problem for Tampa Bay.
Anderson had a career year for the Jackets and played in all 82 games. He recorded 27 goals, 20 assists, and had a team-high rating of plus- 25.
Anderson is the unsung hero for Columbus. He’s kind of a dreamy hockey player to be honest. He comes in at at six feet, three inches and 221 pounds, yet also has the speed to blow by defenders in transition. Let’s be real, that’s hot. While Anderson has the ability to get physical and be a pest to the opposition, it’s his breakaway ability in the neutral zone that could the biggest gamechanger when he’s on the ice. My buddies and I used to joke about Rick Nash and his cherry-picking strategy to catch the defense sleeping when he played for Columbus. While it’s not the best advice to do the same thing against a lethal Lightning offense, one could make the case that risks will have to be taken in order for the Jackets to take down Tampa Bay. Anderson’s playmaking ability in the neutral zone is a huge ingredient to an elaborate upset recipe.
Whether You Call Him Blasé Or A Steady Force, He’s Consistent
While the aforementioned Josh Anderson may be the sexiest hockey player to talk about, Dzingel is on the other end of the spectrum. While he wasn’t flashy, Dzingel did score 26 goals and added 30 assists during the regular season.
Dzingel took a little bit of time to acclimate with his new team, but has been a solid addition to the Jackets, who found a way to make into the playoffs. With Duchene and Anderson projected to be his linemates at the moment, Dzingel has a great opportunity to step up as a playmaker or reap the benefits of some open ice and score some goals. The former Ohio State Buckeye will come full circle when it comes to the hockey experience in Columbus, Ohio.
No Sophomore Slump
Dubois played in all 82 games for the CBJ for the second season in a row, with 27 goals, 34 assists, and a rating of plus- 16.
There was no sophomore slump for Dubois, who saw an increase in his goals, assists, and rating from year one to year two. Dubois recorded two goals and two assists in his playoff debut against the Washington Capitals last season. Not too shabby. If Dubois can remain a steady force in the middle of the ice and ramp up his game in the postseason, he could make an even bigger name for himself as the CBJ attempt to take down the Lightning.
The New X Factor
Texier has seemingly went from a CBJ prospect to a contributor overnight. Texier played for Columbus in the final two games of the regular season, scoring his first goal in the NHL and combining for a rating of plus- 3.
So far (with an extremely small sample size) no moment is too big for Big Tex, who’s on a 41-goal pace in two career regular-season games. I’ll be honest, I couldn’t help but wonder if Torts was making the right move when Texier got the call to play in the Chel. Apparently, being ballsy is the new trend in Columbus, Ohio. And it just might be what’s needed for the Jackets to get out of the first round. Welcome to the postseason, Tex.
Family is ultimately more important than hockey. Foligno missed nine games due medical issues with his daughter and son. It felt like he missed closer to 20 games, as the team struggled during his absences.
Foligno recorded 17 goals and 18 assists in 73 games for Columbus this season. His speed and elusiveness have gone down slightly, but Foligno could maybe be best described as “the glue guy” this season. Despite not putting up very impressive numbers, the team clearly seemed to play better with his presence on the ice and in the dressing room. Foligno was lined up with Boone Jenner and Josh Anderson for awhile, a line that was pivotal in back-to-back victories over the Nashville Predators and Washington Capitals with Korpisalo in net on January 10 and 12 respectively. Now, he’s playing center in between Oliver Bjorkstrand and Alexandre Texier. A line that may be the most intriguing of them all as we are just days away from the start of the playoffs.
The Fourth Line
Boone Jenner, Riley Nash And Brandon Dubinsky
The fourth line of a hockey team entering the playoffs is always quite interesting. There’s the old adage of “You’re only as strong as your weakest link”.
While there’s not expected to be a lot of goal scoring from the 4th line, it’s centered by Jenner, who did bury the biscuit 16 times this season. Jenner, who was in between Anderson and Foligno prior to the trade deadline, is clearly the top player on the line. However, since recording a hat trick against the Bruins on March 12, Jenner has only scored a single goal in his final 12 outings of the season. Nash came over in free agency and has been disappointing with only three goals on the season. If you wanna go with the glass-half full approach, two of those three goals came in the final six games. Dubinsky scored six goals during the campaign, and his last goal that wasn’t of the empty-net variety came on the 29th of January against the Buffalo Sabres.
The trio is a gritty bunch, with Jenner and Dubinsky ranking third and fourth respectively on the team in hits. The two aforementioned teammates both also have a success rate of over 50% when it comes to faceoffs. For the Jackets to be able to hang with the Lightning, they’ll have to stay fresh and get some quality minutes from the 4th line.
Mr. Reliable On The Back End
Seth Jones missed the first seven games of the season due to injury, but played in every game the rest of the way once he entered the lineup.
Jones racked up 46 points (9 goals and 37 assists) and appeared to be Columbus’ top defenseman by a country mile. Why is this? His play would be the first part of that answer, but if that doesn’t convince you his average ice time of 25:49 should. That’s right, Jones averaged 73 more seconds of ice time than a season ago, which also happens to be a career high. People may notice the point total for Jones dropped by 11 compared to the previous season. However, Jones still had the magic touch in the clutch, with four game-winning goals for the CBJ. If stars shine brightest in the postseason, then there’s plenty of reason to expect Seth Jones to be a major factor against Tampa Bay.
Searching For Consistency
Searching For Consistency
At first glance, Zach Werenski was a solid number-two defenseman for the Jackets, with 44 points (11 goals and 33 assists) on the season.
However, Werenski’s playing time was inconsistent and Ryan Murray, who is currently hurt, took his spot alongside Jones for a chunk of the season. Not only that, but Werenski only scored two goals in the last 41 games after scoring nine in the first half of the season.
Werenski’s playmaking abilities are coming back into the fold and he did average a solid 22:54 of ice time (also a career high). The up-and-down season for Werenski leaves some hesitation, as he doesn’t seem to possess the confidence he once had earlier in his career. That can all change with the playoffs beginning on Wednesday night.
The Rest Of The (Healthy) Defensemen
David Savard, Marcus Nutivaara, Dean Kukan, And Scott Harrington
While this is a roster deep dive, I’m not going to completely break down the last four (healthy) defensemen for the CBJ.
I will mention that Savard and Nutivaara are a more reliable pairing and should be getting about 20 minutes of ice time apiece, while the Harrington-Kukan pairing likely will see the least playing time. While these last four defenseman may not be getting the in-depth treatment, they’re all pivotal if Columbus wants to have any chance of taking down the Lightning. Tampa Bay has the top offense and the top power play in the NHL. For good measure, in case you forgot, “Defense wins championships”.
While the CBJ roster is one that could give the Tampa Bay Lightning fits in a seven-game series, the Jackets are still a team that’s been known most for being inconsistent. The stage is set for Columbus to prove everybody wrong, but until they actually do, I won’t believe it. And, Tampa Bay is stacked with talent around the board.