I’m not going to sugar coat it, they’re a good team. They’ve obviously fed it to us a few times this year. I think we’ve grown and I think we understand how we have to play. We haven’t played them since [the trade deadline]. If we can get to our game, its going to make it hard on anyone.
Those were the words of Columbus Blue Jackets Captain Nick Foligno ahead of the first game of their matchup against the Tampa Bay Lightning. He sums things up nicely, recognizing that the CBJ will have their work cut out for them against their first-round foe.
“Good” is probably a bit of an understatement for the Lightning. They had an historic season, recording 62 wins, tied for the most in NHL history, and registering 128 points, the most since 1995-96 when the Detroit Red Wings amassed 131.
Top to bottom, Tampa Bay is dominant. They feature three skaters in the top six in goal scoring, including Nikita Kucherov, whose 128 points ranks as the highest total in the last 23 years.
Their defensemen can make an impact too. Victor Hedman finished among the top ten in NHL defensemen in assists, registering 42 helpers in 70 games played. The only Jackets player with more was their leading point-getter, Artemi Panarin. And Hedman isn’t alone: Ryan McDonagh and Mikhail Sergachev also topped 30 points from the blue line this season.
It’s no surprise, then, that the Lightning lead the league in scoring and feature the best power play in the NHL. But the Lightning aren’t all offense. Defensively, they rank inside the top ten in goals allowed per game, and are tied with the CBJ with the top penalty kill in the National Hockey League.
They also have a pretty good goaltender, Andrei Vasilevskiy, who led the league in wins and ranked inside the top ten in both goals allowed average and save percentage.
Then there’s the head-to-head the Lightning have had against the Jackets this season. They swept the three-game series between the two clubs, outscoring the CBJ by a combined 17-3. Even going back to last year, the Blue Jackets were shut out a couple times, again losing all three to Tampa Bay.
Despite all of that, as Foligno hinted at, the Jackets are a different team now than they were then. They made some well-documented moves at the trade deadline and have put themselves in a position to not just make the postseason, but to advance.
And it’s for this reason, that if you were to pick a team that was a wild card heading to the playoffs, you could make a good case that it’s the Columbus Blue Jackets.
They battled ups and downs all season. Whether it was the Sergei Bobrovsky suspension, the rumors surrounding Artemi Panarin, the dismal power play, or the underachieving after the deadline, the fact that the squad rallied when they needed to in order to make the cut at the end of the season is indicative of the potential this team has to make a run if things are clicking.
After finishing the season winning seven of their last eight contests, things appear to be heading the right direction as the club prepares now to face the juggernaut that is the Tampa Bay Lightning.
It’s David versus Goliath, but David has a cannon.
The Blue Jackets’ success will likely fall on the shoulders of Goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. His track record in the playoffs isn’t great, but it’s hard to argue that he’s peaking at the right time this year. In his last 13 starts of the regular season, Bob allowed 1.54 goals per game, registered four shutouts, and stopped 94.6% of shots sent his way.
Many experts will say that the Blue Jackets present a tough matchup for the Lightning, then pick Tampa Bay to win in four or five games.
Ultimately, it’s going to come down to which CBJ team shows up in this series. They’ve proven to be quite inconsistent this year, and if it’s that team that shows up at Amalie Arena for Game 1, then the Jackets will be in trouble and those experts will be right. But if it’s the one that clicked towards the end of the regular season, watch out.
The CBJ have a tall task in front of them, but this is a team that’s used to facing tough competition in the first round – just see how their last two postseason opponents fared. They’ll be underdogs once again, and that’s something that they need to embrace heading into this series.
The Lightning have a target on their back, and will have the eyes of the hockey world on them as they attempt to cap off their historic season. If the Jackets play the way they can, they can shock the world. It all starts in Game 1, with puck drop tonight scheduled for shortly after 7:00 PM ET.