Columbus Blue Jackets (4) at Tampa Bay Lightning (1)
Regular Season Record: Columbus 47-31-4 (98 points) Tampa Bay Lightning 62-16-4 (128 points)
Head to Head Record: Tampa Bay swept season series 3-0
The 2018-19, Tampa Bay Lightning turned in one of the most dominant performances in professional sports. Tampa Bay won 62 games tying the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings for the most in a season. The team cruised to the President’s Cup given out for the most points on the a season locking it up weeks ago. How dominant were the Lightning? They are the only team to score over 300 goals this season (325) nearly half a score more a game than the next closest team, the Calgary Flames. The goal differential the Lightning ended the season with was +103. The teams that trailed them in the Division, Boston and Toronto, combined goal differential was +79. Tampa Bay was equally successful at home 32-7-2 as on the road 30-9-2, carving up the opposition as they averaged 3.96 points a game.
The Columbus Blue Jackets have a talented team clinching a Wild Card in the final week of the season. The Blue Jackets are not an average wild card squad, but an excellent team with a shot to upset Tampa Bay. The Blue Jackets went for broke this year, pulling off two blockbuster trades with the Ottawa Senators to secure the services of Ryan Dzingel and Matt Duchene. Columbus’ roster is loaded with talent including Cam Atkinson, Boone Jenner and goalie Sergei Bobrovsky. The Jackets finished with the 5th highest win total on the year in the Eastern Conference, but will hard pressed to extend the series more than 5 games.
Nikita Kucherov, a Russian import, is the leading candidate to win the Hart Trophy for most valuable player. Kucherov dominated on a nightly basis finishing the year with 41 goals and 87 assists for a league leading 128 total points, 12 more than the next closest player. Not to be outdone Steven Stamkos finished 9th in total points with 98. The Canadian born Stamkos slotted home 45 goals and contributed 53 assists, ending the season in 9th in total goals. One other team has two players in the top 10 in points, Connor McDavid and Leo Draisaitl, from Edmonton but unlike Tampa they are a two horse show. Tampa Bay placed Brayden Point, 13th in the league for total points, as he scored 41 goals and 51 assists. How good was Points season? He finished 3 points ahead of Washington Capitals dynamo, Alex Ovechkin on the year. The Lightning do not just stop with these three players. Scrolling down their depth chart are names like Yanni Gourde (48 points), Tyler Johnson (47), J. T. Miller (47) and Alex Killorn (40) that would feature on other teams. The Lightning have four top lines in the NHL without a realistic weakness to be found in a seven-game series.
Countering the Lightning’s dominant lineup is a very talented group of offensive players in the own right for Columbus. Artemi Panarin and his 5’ 11” frame flies around the ice, causing fits for opponents defenders. Panarin is the engine making the Jackets go, leading the team in assists with 59 to go with his 38 goals. American born, Cam Atkinson, scored 41 goals tying him for sixth place in the league. Matt Duchene is a former third pick in the draft acquired at the trade deadline by the Jackets. Duchene played in 73 games this year, scoring 31 times and was credited with 39 assists. Like his teammate, Ryan Dzingel, a majority of his points were scored playing for Ottawa. Dzingel, the second major acquisition at the trade deadline, chipped in 4 goals and had 8 assists in his 21 games for Columbus. Each of the players fit in well with the Jackets, but their production was down a bit from Ottawa where they had to carry a team.
Tampa Bay’s backline is solid and has the length to disrupt an opponents scoring attack. The defenders check in averaging 6’ 3” in height and run around 225 pounds cutting an imposing look on the ice. Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh sacrificed their bodies nearly 300 times combined this year blocking pucks intended for goal. Victor Hedman is the most offensively minded of the group with 12 goals and 42 assists to lead his peers on defense. Mikhail Sergachev, Erik Cernak, and Bryadon Coburn round out three main pairings on the back half of the ice.
Tampa Bay sends out Andrei Vasilevskiy the most likely Vezina award winner as best goaltender. Vasilevskiy is an intimidating force between the pipes and shuts down the opposition nightly. Another of Tampa Bay’s imports from Russia, Andrei sports a sterling 92.5% save percentage this year. Vasilevskiy is impenetrable from distance (8.59 low danger goals above average) and blocks medium danger shots at a 19.25 MDGSAA. Let’s be realistic, he does not have a flaw to his game, but he can be beaten at times up close. His high danger save percentage is 82.2% and unlike medium/low danger shots, Andrei’s HDGSAA is 1.19. I am definitely stretching to find a nick in his armor and as long as the Russian is healthy, Tampa Bay should feel confident.
Columbus’ backline does not have the imposing height and weight of the Lightning. The passing ability of the defenders can spring the offensive attack for the Blue Jackets when given the opportunity. Seth Jones led his peers with 37 assists, with Zach Werenski adding 33 assists to go along with 11 goals. Watch for Ryan Murray to get plenty of playing time and pass the puck up ice to spur on a charge towards the Lightning goal. The Blue Jackets rely more on a finesse game to deter the opponents frontline, only David Savard totaled more than 100 hits in the defensive zone.
I am assuming that you are reading this because you like hockey or want to learn a bit more before enjoying the playoffs for the first time. Let me introduce you to Vasilevskiy’s equal in front of the net, Sergei Bobrovsky. Bobrovsky is a top 5 goaltender, who rounded into top form over the past month. Bob had a few issues in the middle of the season, but if he is on, Columbus can take down the Goliath in the NHL this year. The theme in this series is Russia as Sergei also hails from the former Soviet Union. Bobrovsky allowed 2.58 goals per game over the season and saved 91.3% of the pucks sent his way. Good luck in close against the veteran netminder with 14.59 goals saved above average in close. His weakness may be an occasional lapse in focus as he sports a -2.45 LDGSAA.
Columbus is a strong team squaring up against a possible historically great Tampa Bay team. I do not believe the Lightning are looking forward to facing a top 5 goalie in their opening series. The Blue Jackets have a very real chance to take down Tampa Bay depending on the play of Bobrovsky. He can absolutely carry this team on his back with a dominating performance. Saying all this, Tampa Bay wins in 5 games. Vasilevskiy is every bit as good, if not better than Bobrovsky. The Lightning are on a mission to rectify last years loss to Washington in the Eastern Conference finals and win the Cup. I do not believe anyone can stand in their way- if the Whale and Andy have me back- I will write a few Finals previews, but the Lightning are my pick for the champions of the NHL.
Current Odds as of 4/10:
Tampa Bay -400