It's not often that you see a team as hot as the Columbus Blue Jackets enter the postseason as heavy underdogs, but the Tampa Bay Lightning have a way of doing that to opponents.
The Bolts pummeled everyone this year on the way to 62 wins and 128 points, the fourth-most in NHL history. They're a veritable murder house and the Blue Jackets have the scars from their three meetings this year to prove it.
Not many outside Columbus' locker room is giving the Blue Jackets, who haven't even beaten the Lightning in over two years, much of a chance in the teams' first round series, but the Jackets are playing with house money and may have more of a shot than you think.
Here are seven reasons the Blue Jackets might be able to shock the hockey world.
1. The “Curse”
Some insist the Presidents' Trophy carries a curse with it. Others say that's nonsense. All I know is that the last six clubs to finish with the NHL's best regular season record failed to hoist the Cup. In fact, more Presidents' Trophy winners have been bounced in the first round (5) than have gone on to win the Cup (2) in the last 15 years.
Nice point total, Tampa Bay. Be a shame if something happened to it.
2. Regression to the Mean
The Lightning might be the best team on paper over the last two decades, and they most definitely rolled the Blue Jackets in their three meetings, winning by a combined score of 17-3. However, the Blue Jackets won everything but the score in large chunks of those 180 minutes.
Looking at PDO (shooting percentage + save percentage), the Bolts' three games against the Jackets were three of their six best of the season. Columbus gave them two of their four worst Corsi outings of the campaign, meaning the Jackets carried the puck for big segments of those games, and were one of just five teams to hold the Lightning to 22 or fewer shots in a game—and they did it twice. In the teams' last meeting, the Blue Jackets outshot the Lightning 40-20, but still lost, 5-1.
TL;DR the Blue Jackets have done a better job than anyone else in the league at generating shot attempts against Tampa Bay while also limiting the Lightning's shot attempts. The difference is between the pipes: Tampa Bay got exceptional goaltending in those games while Columbus got below average performances.
3. The Gang's All Here
This Blue Jackets team is not the same team the Lightning walloped three times during the season. The trade deadline additions of Matt Duchene (31 goals) and Ryan Dzingel (26) made this team dangerous, even if it took a bit for them to gel with their new teammates.
Duchene and Dzingel faced Tampa Bay twice while wearing Ottawa sweaters this season, losing the first one in overtime before connecting on a beautiful give-and-go for the game-winner over Tampa in the second meeting.
They won't be intimidated.
Rookie Alexandre Texier has been spectacular since arriving in North America and gives the Jackets a bottom six weapon for this series. Texier, Duchene and Dzingel move Columbus to its final form and it's a lethal one.
“We added some good players so we're more an all-around team, four lines, six D,” winger Cam Atkinson said recently. “We're more balanced.”
4. Juggernauts Stumble
Look no further than Duke coming up short in the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament for a reminder that teams that are supposed to be unbeatable sometimes are.
A few other examples:
- Edmonton Oilers (1986): Cruised to a league-best 119 points before getting bounced by Calgary (89 points) in the conference finals. This stacked Oilers team – featuring future Hall of Famers Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Paul Coffey, and Grant Fuhr – had what would have been a run of five-straight Stanley Cups interrupted by the Flames.
- Detroit Red Wings (1996): Finished with 131 points, the second-most in NHL history, and played zero Stanley Cup Finals games.
- New England Patriots (2007): The 19–0 shirts were printed. Nobody told the New York Giants.
- Kentucky Wildcats (2015): Months before having four players taken in the top 13 of the NBA Draft, Kentucky had its 38–0 season put to rest by Wisconsin in the Final Four.
- Ohio State Buckeyes (2015): We're still trying to figure out how this team doesn't have rings.
- Golden State Warriors (2016): The Warriors won an NBA-record 73 regular season games. But don't let this sentence that you're presently reading in your head distract you from the fact that they blew a 3–1 lead in the Finals.
5. The Hot Goalie
Goalies can and often have heated up in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, stealing a series, or taking a team all the way to a Stanley Cup. In 2012, Jonathan Quick told his 8th-seeded Kings teammates, “I got this,” and then went 16–4 with a 1.41 GAA and a .946 SV% on the way to lifting the Cup. Pick any year the Devils won it and you'll find Marty Brodeur elevated his game. Hell, Montreal's Cup drought would be 42 years had it not been for Patrick Roy carrying the team on his back in 1993.
Sergei Bobrovsky got waxed by the Lightning twice in the season, but enters the playoffs having won 10 of 13, toting a 1.58 GAA and .946 SV% to go with an unreal four shutouts in that stretch. If he can stay hot for this series, watch out.
6. This Team is Rolling
Bobrovsky is playing well, but he's getting a lot of support at the other end. The Blue Jackets finished the season on a 7–1 run that saw them outscore their opponents 33-8 in those seven wins. 14 different Blue Jackets have goals during that stretch. It's not just one line that's killing teams, it's every line.
John Tortorella seems to have put his blender away, settling on lines he likes. He has depth, intensity, and most importantly, consistent scoring now. A confident team is a dangerous team.
7. Strength through Adversity
The Blue Jackets just completed what may have been the most turbulent season in franchise history. They've been through it all this year and they're stronger for it. What adversity has Tampa Bay faced this season?
The Lightning lost back-to-back games just twice during the season. What happens if Columbus is able to steal one of the first two and some of the pressure shifts to an organization that has been in the thick of Cup contention since 2014 with nothing much to show for it? With this, their best team ever?