The Columbus Blue Jackets are (sort of) in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
As of Tuesday afternoon, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman confirmed that the league is moving forward with a 24-team playoff format that will begin at an unforeseen date. I say sort-of when referring to the Blue Jackets being in the playoffs, because technically they're not.
Here's a breakdown of Bettman's announcement on Tuesday if you missed it.
NHL says the round-robin/play-in are considered Qualifying for the Stanley Cup playoffs. And while this could still change, the NHL as of now considers that round a special set of games and not actual playoffs. So for record-keeping purposes, the playoffs weren't expanded from 16— Pierre LeBrun (@PierreVLeBrun) May 26, 2020
In the "Qualifying Round", the Blue Jackets will take on the Toronto Maple Leafs in a five-game play-in series to get them into the "real" playoffs. Now, the 2019-2020 regular season is technically concluded, so if you want to say that we're now in the "postseason" and therefore "playoffs", that's fine, I'm just letting you know what they're going to say in the record books.
Nevertheless, this play-in series against the Maple Leafs is one step closer to a Stanley Cup run for our boys in blue.
For a lot of us, myself included, that just doesn't sound realistic at all. The Blue Jackets had such a weird, injury-riddled, streaky, role-player shining year, and the idea of them winning the freaking Stanley Cup seems like a pipe dream. Really? This team? After what they lost last year, especially?
In the same breath though, I'd say: Why not us? Look at last year against the Tampa Bay Lightning. That should teach us that anything can happen in hockey. Plus, the Blue Jackets will be nearly fully healthy for the first time in what feels like forever - woof, this may not be an ideal first matchup for the Maple Leafs.
So, because we can (and maybe should), let's talk about what the best road would be for the Blue Jackets to make the Stanley Cup Finals and potentially go for it all. Because the road is tough no matter what, but the road still matters. I'm still a firm believer that had the Blue Jackets not needed to play the Boston Bruins last May, they could be defending a league title right now.
This bracket helps show what the Eastern Conference playoffs would look like should the top-four teams' seedings not change after the Round Robin games, but they likely will change. But for simplicity sake, we'll keep them relatively the same seeding.
I'm going to try and be as realistic as possible when saying these "ideal matchups", too. Meaning, obviously the 12-seed Montreal Canadiens would be an "ideal matchup" for the Blue Jackets in the Conference Semifinals, but the Canadiens likely won't make it past the qualifying round. So I'm going to combine a bit of realism with a bit of idealism.
Possible Opponents: Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals, Philadelphia Flyers
Likely Opponents: Bruins, Lightning
Ideal Opponent: Lightning
Reasoning: The Blue Jackets are stuck playing the one-seed of the top-four teams in the conference if they beat the Maple Leafs, and it likely means they will stack up against the Bruins or Lightning. Not that the Flyers or Capitals won't sneak their way to the one-seed, but again, I'm trying to be realistic. The Bruins and Lightning might be the two best teams in the league.
The Blue Jackets only got to play one of their three games against the Lightning this season, and it ended in a 2-1 overtime loss at Nationwide Arena. The Blue Jackets outshot the Lightning 32-30 and were also without Cam Atkinson, Seth Jones and Joonas Korpisalo. However, the Lightning did play their backup goaltender Curtis McElhinney.
One benefit of playing the Lightning is they might have some nightmares still from last April. That, and the pressure is, once again, on them. If the Blue Jackets lose, no one faults them. If the Lightning lose, to a qualifying team, the Blue Jackets, two years in a row, they may never hear the end of it. Aside from the mental edge, the Blue Jackets' rock-solid defense can help keep the Lightning's superstars at bay, giving room for players like Cam Atkinson, Oliver Bjorkstrand and Pierre-Luc Dubois to light the lamp. A team like the Bruins is pretty terrifying from top-to-bottom, but the Lightning for sure have their holes - a weak blue line and a shakey playoff goaltender.
I'm not saying it'd be easy, and it's hard saying it's ideal, but I'm going to say it's a bit easier than playing the Bruins, who are my Cup favorite right now.
Possible Opponents: Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Montreal Canadiens
Likely Opponents: Capitals, Flyers, Penguins
Ideal Opponent: Capitals
Reasoning: I'm going to try and be fair and say it's likely the Capitals or Flyers will end up with the four-seed, again, just because of how good the Bruins and Lightning are. And the Penguins are surely going to trounce the Canadiens, yes?
Nevertheless, I'm going with the Capitals, the current three-seed in the Eastern Conference, as my ideal opponent in a second-round matchup. I don't know what it is, but the Blue Jackets always hold way more than their own when it comes to matchups with Washington (let's forget about the final four games in the 2018 postseason for a second).
In three outings against the Capitals this season, the Blue Jackets went 2-0-1 and outscored Washington by a total of 9-4. The Capitals' stitch is a deep top-12 forward group, a veteran goaltender and a defense that is formidable enough to get them past most opponents. But, they rely a bit too much on the likes of Alexander Ovechkin, who historically struggles when playing the Blue Jackets.
I'm not kidding. He really does. Ovechkin averages roughly .75 points per game against the Blue Jackets, the lowest of his against any team in the NHL, where his average is normally over one point per game. Columbus locks him down, and frankly it's not close.
I'll be brief with the other two - the Penguins just have the Blue Jackets' number, and even though Columbus is 1-1-1 on the year against their sort-of-rival, I just don't want to play Pittsburgh in the playoffs. It likely won't end well.
The Flyers are more favorable than the Penguins, but they also are one of the hottest and most underrated teams in the league right now. On the year, the Blue Jackets are 0-3-1 against Philadelphia and have been outscored 10-19. They're gritty and built a lot like Columbus, but just better in most of those ways, to be honest.
Possible Opponents: Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals, Philadelphia Flyers, New York Islanders, Carolina Hurricanes, Florida Panthers, New York Rangers
Likely Opponents: Capitals, Lightning, Islanders, Hurricanes
Ideal Opponent: Hurricanes
Reasoning: I've already stated my reason for wanting to play the Capitals, and I think that still holds true over playing a hard-nosed team like the Islanders, who are similar to the Flyers in many ways. I think both of those teams have the edge over Columbus.
The Hurricanes are interesting though. They are similar to the Blue Jackets in many ways. They're on the rise for sure and had a fun playoff run last season, but might be a bit too young still to jump into a real contender's window. They have two either unproven or slightly above average goaltenders, and a young offense that lost some talent in the offseason.
But the difference here is defense. Beyond Dougie Hamilton and Jacob Slavin, Carolina is a bit thin on their blue line, and Columbus should be fully healthy on that end come season resumption time. Plus, they're 3-0-0 against Carolina this year, so I like the Blue Jackets' chances.
Stanley Cup Finals
If the Blue Jackets actually made it to the Stanley Cup Finals, part of me wouldn't care who we played. I say that now I suppose, but if we saw the Colorado Avalanche or the St. Louis Blues on the other side, I may throw in the towel. However, if we made it that far, I'd kind of say again, why not us?
After those two teams, the most likely contenders to come out of the Western Conference would be the Vegas Golden Knights, Winnipeg Jets, Edmonton Oilers and Dallas Stars, and to be honest, I like our chances in all four of those series options. The Oilers are a bit scary because McDavid and company seemingly love to torture Columbus for some reason, but the Blue Jackets have actually fared well against the other three teams this year, and have beaten them at least once each.
So, this is the weird, way-too-early and I suppose not likely path to a Blue Jackets' Stanley Cup Finals. Once the Round-Robin series is played, we will have a better idea of this path and ideal opponents, but for now, we can dream.
Who are your ideal opponents along the way for a Cup run, and who are your most feared opponents? Let me know in the comments.
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