The Columbus Blue Jackets have their work cut out if they are to take the next step and win a playoff series for the first time in franchise history.
They'll enter their first round matchup against the Tampa Bay Lightning as huge underdogs, and may be out-classed from the crease out to the forwards. The Lightning finished the season with 62 wins and 128 points, the fourth-most points total among all teams in NHL history.
In part one of series breakdown, we'll dissect the forward groups that each team will count on in round one of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
There have been changes aplenty in the Blue Jackets top 12 forwards this season, but especially in the past month and a half since the trade deadline.
Out of the lineup are: Lukas Sedlak, Markus Hannikainen, Eric Robinson, and most notably, Alexander Wennberg.
In are: Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, and, most recently, Alexandre Texier, who scored his first career NHL goal in Saturday night's 6-2 win over the Ottawa Senators.
John Tortorella seems comfortable with his lines, but those are famous last words. Artemi Panarin, Cam Atkinson, and Pierre-Luc Dubois, which has been the Blue Jackets top line for much of the past two years, "will probably start in Tampa”, according to Tortorella. This line will be leaned on heavily to produce offense.
The second line of Dzingel, Duchene, and Josh Anderson is among the best second lines in the NHL. All three players had fantastic offensive seasons, and all set career-high goals, with Dzingel scoring 26, Anderson tallying 27, and Duchene posting 31. They'll need to be productive for the Blue Jackets to have a chance.
The third line is still somewhat up in the air, but we do know this: Texier and Oliver Bjorkstrand, who has been on an absolute tear, scoring 9-2-11 (G-A-PTS) in the past 10 games, will represent two-thirds of the line. In Ottawa, captain Nick Foligno filled in at center, taking Boone Jenner off the line and demoting him to the fourth line. It's early still, but Bjorkstrand's playmaking skills seem to be more pronounced playing with a player of Texier's ilk. This line could be an under the radar ex-factor in the series.
The fourth line is about as 'built-for-playoff-hockey' as they come, with Jenner playing alongside Brandon Dubinsky and Riley Nash. All three players are known for their rugged, steady play. While Nash and Dubinsky provide limited offense, Jenner put up a quietly solid (although not incredible) 16-22-38 season in a mostly bottom-six capacity. All three will be counted on to kill penalties, and since all three can play center, look for them to start a lot of their shifts in the defensive zone. If this line can keep Tampa Bay off the scoreboard while they're on the ice, that would be a huge net positive for the Blue Jackets.
Meanwhile, the Lightning are menacing from top to bottom, and boast one of the best lineups in the salary cap era. The stats showcasing their dominance are seemingly endless:
- Panarin led the Blue Jackets with 28-59, good for 87 points. Nikita Kucherov, who will probably win the Hart Trophy as the NHL's MVP, had 87 assists, and added a cool 41 goals for 128 points.
- The Lightning had three players over 90 points: Kucherov, Brayden Point, and captain Steven Stamkos. All three players also had 40+ goals, making them the only team to have three 40-goal scorers (Edmonton had two).
- The Lightning outscored the Blue Jackets 17-3 in three games this season. In those three games, the trio of Kucherov, Point, and Stamkos combined for 20 points (9, 9, 2, respectively) on 11 goals and nine assists.
At the risk of overstating the obvious, the Lightning rely heavily on a top line of Kucherov, Point, and Yanni Gourde, who was no slouch with 22-26-48. If the Blue Jackets can do the (seemingly) impossible and slow down this line, they'll have a much better chance at winning the series.
The second line is more prolific than most teams' top lines, featuring Stamkos alongside Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat. The line has been together, at least part time, since 2013-14, though head coach John Cooper mixes his players around a fair bit. The line is lethal because it can play effectively in any type of game, rugged or fast. It's a veteran group that has had success for years, with the speed or Johnson, the goal-scoring of Stamkos, and the straight-ahead play of Palat giving teams fits. Slowing this line will be a challenge for the Blue Jackets, especially when considering Seth Jones will likely be playing primarily against the Lightning's top line.
The bottom two lines have been moving around in recent games, but we expect to see some combination of Alex Killorn, Anthony Cirelli, J.T. Miller, Cedric Paquette, Mathieu Joseph, Ryan Callahan, and Adam Erne. No word on who the odd-man out will be, or if a wild-card like Danick Martel cracks the lineup, but the same will hold true regardless: the Lightning have been incredibly successful playing any combination of these lines, and the Blue Jackets will have their hands full in trying to slow down this juggernaut of a team.
The Blue Jackets enter the postseason with their deepest lineup in franchise history. Almost any other year, against almost any other team, it would be an advantage. But that's not how the cookie crumbled this year, and Tampa will have a decisive leg-up on any forward group in the NHL.
While Columbus has certainly closed the gap with the deadline acquisitions of Dzingel and Duchene, and the recent call-up of 19-year old Texier, there is still a gap. Tampa has three 40-goal scorers in their top six, a cohesive lineup that has stars that have played together for years, and a beautifully built blend of speed, skill, creativity, and brawn. Advantage: Tampa Bay.
Stay with 1st Ohio Battery for parts two and three of our series breakdown, where we'll analyze the two teams' defense and goaltending.
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