Nothing to get your blood going like a playoff rematch.
It's only one year (and some change) apart, but the teams are a bit different. The Tampa Bay Lightning reloaded, even more, regressed in regular season success and are dealing with some injuries. The Columbus Blue Jackets lost big free agents, squeaked into Round One, but are (mostly) all healed up.
Surely the Lightning, after their embarrassing sweep from a season ago after having one of the greatest regular seasons in NHL history, will wipe the Blue Jackets off the face of the earth, no?
It's a great question! And it's why we play the game. But before that even happens, we must talk.
Who (or what) was the biggest surprise of the Toronto series for you?
Dan Dukart, Staff Writer: The Blue Jackets' ability to shut down Toronto’s attack for long, sustained stretches. I figured that Columbus would be able to take a page out of their playbook from last season versus Tampa Bay, but I fully expected this series to be a back-and-forth affair with the Maple Leafs coming in waves. That was a complete buy-in from the entire roster, coupled with elite goaltending from both goaltenders. It’s hard not to come away impressed, but I was admittedly a bit surprised.
Jacob Nitzberg, Staff Writer: I was most surprised by the outstanding play of Joonas Korpisalo, who played a huge part in helping the Blue Jackets advance to the next round. Korpisalo made save after save in critical situations and performed well above his regular season output. With a .956 save percentage in the series vs. Toronto, the Finnish netminder showed he was ready for the big time — a showing that became even more important when Elvis Merzlikins was injured and Korpisalo got the nod for Game 5.
Rob Mixer, Editor-in-Chief: The biggest surprise, for me, in that series was that it went five games. Both teams had enough flaws and mishaps for this to be a shorter series – and I was impressed with how the Blue Jackets were able to keep themselves afloat after a disaster in Game 4.
Ed Francis, Staff Writer: With the exception of four minutes in Game 4, Columbus played every bit of that series like it was Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals. The energy that this team had was seen throughout, especially on defense: active sticks and physical play shutting down Toronto’s offensive juggernauts time after time was downright sexy. Their confidence grew as the games went on, especially the young core. Liam Foudy did not look like someone who had two NHL games under his belt before this series.
Chris Pennington, Associate Editor: I think how Pierre-Luc Dubois evolved was absolutely beautiful to watch - and a bit of a surprise to me. In our last roundtable, I did say he would need to step up big for the Blue Jackets to win, but he can be so inconsistent that I honestly didn’t think he would. If he can start to string together his elite performances, he’ll be an all-star next year.
The series is over, so be honest. Would you rather have had the Blue Jackets lose to get a shot at the #1 draft pick, or are you cool with whatever happens from here on out?
DD: I think the experience gained by playing in the playoffs outweigh the 12.5% chance of drafting first overall, but if I had a crystal ball, I would have preferred the #1 pick over, say, a first-round exit to the Tampa Bay Lightning. But let’s be clear: Elvis Merzlikins and Joonas Korpisalo announced themselves quite well to the hockey world, and young players like Liam Foudy and Alexandre Texier seemed to be growing in front of our eyes. That has serious value.
JN: I’m cool with whatever happens here. A 12.5% chance, while certainly tempting, is far from guaranteed. Like Dan said above, the experience that the Blue Jackets’ young guns are getting in the playoffs is invaluable, and that’ll help the team in the long run. They’ve earned their spot in the first round by beating a team that most experts favored, and now they’ve got a shot to do it again in a highly-anticipated rematch with the Lightning.
RM: It’s tempting to talk about the No. 1 pick, and an elite prospect would certainly help the Blue Jackets, but I despise talking about it as if it’s some sort of magic pill. I think about the Edmonton Oilers a lot (and granted, they don’t have a roster that’s as balance as the Blue Jackets and their defense is suspect); how long has it taken them to figure it out? The Blue Jackets know who they are and they know what works, and they’ve built something special here. Keep pushing, keep going, see what happens.
EF: Alright, I’ll admit it: If you would have guaranteed me that the Blue Jackets would have got the top pick had they been ousted last night, yes, I would have been secretly rooting for the Maple Leafs. But only because I know I’d still get the satisfaction of Maple Leaf tears at some point this postseason. Also, I have a very selfish reason: I have never missed a home playoff game and my goal is to never miss one until Columbus has a Stanley Cup. If they’re to win it all this season and I’m not along for the ride in person, I confess that deep down I’d be a little sad.
CP: I’m only a proponent of tanking if there’s no mathematical chance of winning a championship. So in the 2014-2016 era when we were eliminated from playoff contention but we kept winning, I was frustrated. Now, I don’t love our odds (at all) to win a Cup this year, but I can’t find it within me to cheer against us knowing it’s a possibility. That being said; keep going, boys. Let’s shock the world.
The Maple Leafs are great, but the Lightning are on another level. What part of them worries you the most as a Blue Jackets fan?
DD: The Maple Leafs scare teams because they can simply turn the offense up to 100. The Lightning can, too, but what worries me, even more, is their ability to win hockey games in several ways. Obviously they have an elite offense, but they also have a Vezina Trophy-caliber netminder in Andrei Vasilevskiy, really strong two-way centers like Brayden Point and Anthony Cirelli, arguably the top defenseman in the NHL in Victor Hedman (who may be injured), and a really formidable defense corps that also boasts Mikhail Sergachev, Erik Cernak, and veterans Ryan McDonagh and Kevin Shattenkirk. Lastly, the Lightning didn’t bring back the same roster from last year, adding some snarl to the lineup by virtue of Pat Maroon, Blake Coleman, and Barclay Goodrow. There’s a lot more on this roster than Toronto’s.
JN: The Lightning scare me because they’re so well rounded. They have elite offensive talent with shutdown defensemen and a goaltender who doesn’t give up much. Sure, that was the case last year too. But last year, the Blue Jackets had an elite winger in Artemi Panarin and a dynamic center in Matt Duchene. They’ve lost both of them, without gaining much back offensively. While last year’s edition of the Blue Jackets was able to pour it on offensively, I’m not so sure that the 2020 Blue Jackets can afford to get in a shootout with the Lightning.
RM: What worries me about the Lightning is that they’re pissed off. The Blue Jackets pulled their pants down on national TV last spring and exposed a lot of issues within their team. Did Tampa get better in the 16 months since? I’m not so sure about that, but what they lacked in last year’s playoffs (any semblance of emotion, aside from Nikita Kucherov bashing people face-first into the boards) should be there this time around.
EF: Tampa Bay led the league in goals. They have a great offense, but so did Toronto, and Columbus has proven that they have one of the best bluelines in the NHL. So it’s the other side of the puck that scares me: Can the Blue Jackets score enough goals to win? Specifically, can the 0-for-the-series (on 14 chances) power play get it together? Of the 16 teams remaining in the bubble, the Lightning ranked 10th in penalty kill percentage during the regular season. That’s manageable, sure, but Toronto would have ranked 15th in that metric if they were still in the bubble. Tampa Bay is better on the kill because they simply have a better defense and a better goalie. Don’t forget: Scoring on the power play was huge for Columbus in last season’s sweep of Tampa Bay. They’ll need it to come up huge again in 2020.
CP: I think it’s that their scoring can come from anywhere - not just their superstars. They had 14 guys who scored at least seven goals on the year, and three of those skaters were defensemen. So, if Nikita Kucherov or Brayden Point can’t get going (and Steven Stamkos is out of the lineup), they’re still a threat (especially against a Blue Jackets team that can’t score nearly as much as they did last year).
Who has the motivational edge here? On one hand, the Lightning are looking to avenge their embarrassing sweep from a year ago. On the other, the Blue Jackets have the blue-collar, chip-on-their-shoulder vibe to knock off the top dogs (like Tampa Bay). Plus, there are Jon Cooper’s “six-days-in-April” comments that John Tortorella hated...
DD: It has to be Tampa. The two teams only met once this season, a nationally televised game in which the Blue Jackets fell in overtime to a hyper-motivated Lightning team. It was jarring to see a playoff game in the middle of the regular season, and it showed that the Lightning are out for revenge. The Blue Jackets definitely have a target on their proverbial backs for this series.
JN: I think it’s the Lightning. To fall flat on their face as they did last year, with so much hype around them, was incredibly demoralizing. It left a bad taste in their mouths Now, they have a shot to knock off the Blue Jackets. They’re going to play angry, and they’ll be extremely motivated to avenge last year’s loss.
RM: I have no idea if the Lightning took the Blue Jackets lightly in their series last year, because Columbus played so well for the final 11 periods...but the motivational edge leans Tampa’s way in 2020. The Blue Jackets do have some edge of their own, in that they still don’t feel as though they’ve gotten the respect they deserve, which should not be counted out.
EF: Tampa Bay. Columbus is not going to get overlooked by Jon Cooper’s squad this time around. Ask yourself this question: Who do you think the Lightning were pulling for while watching Sunday’s game? They were rooting for Columbus, I can guarantee you, and for no other reason than to have the chance to forgive themselves for what happened last April.
CP: We all know Tampa Bay is going to come out guns-a-blazing in Game 1, looking to send the Blue Jackets into the sun for their performance last postseason. But the Blue Jackets always seem to be motivated behind John Tortorella. They are still looking to prove their eliteness to the hockey world. Why not shut up the Lightning two years in a row to make a statement?
Which Blue Jacket is primed to shine against the Lightning?
DD: Give me Oliver Bjorkstrand. That the Blue Jackets advanced in five games without a single goal from arguably their best forward speaks volumes. He knows he’ll be counted upon in this series, and he was dynamite in the four-game sweep a year ago. Columbus may have been able to get by Toronto without Bjorkstrand, but I’m not sure lightning can strike twice here (see what I did there?).
JN: I’ll go with Seth Jones. He was great against the Lightning last year, notching two goals and two assists in the four game sweep along with averaging almost 26 minutes of ice time per game. While Victor Hedman won the Norris Trophy in 2017-18, it was clear who the best defenseman was in that series. Jones will play with Zach Werenski, a pairing that is one of the best in the NHL, both offensively and defensively.
RM: It will have to be Joonas Korpisalo. Sergei Bobrovsky stood on his lid last year and willed the Blue Jackets through some difficult stretches in Game 4, but now the baton has been passed. Korpisalo was terrific in the qualifying round but this is a completely different beast. The Lightning will have their ears pinned back and the Blue Jackets are going to need some saves.
EF: Probably not the name you are expecting to see here, but give me Ryan Murray. He hasn’t been seen in a postseason game since the Washington series over two years ago. Those six games are the only playoff games he’s been on the ice for outside of five his rookie season, all the way back in 2013-14. If the Blue Jackets are to win this series, they’ll do it with 2-1 defensive battles - not 6-5 thrillers. To do that, they’ll need three solid lines of defense. Murray can anchor that third pairing, and give John Tortorella confidence that guys like Seth Jones and Zach Werenski don’t need to play 30+ minutes per game. Tampa will wear even the best defenders down if they’re out there too long. (Of course, for Murray to shine, he’ll need to stay healthy.)
CP: Let’s see Liam Foudy continue to break out. He had ten(!) shots against the Maple Leafs, and looked like he was getting better by the minute of how to use his speed. His clutch goal in Game 5 was well due. The rookie averaged over 15 minutes of ice time per game against Toronto, and I’m looking to see him hit the back of the net two or three times against the Lightning.
Series predictions aren’t random enough. Give me the most scalding hot take of your life about anything in this series:
DD: Can I pass on this? Okay, fine… Korpisalo re-aggravates his knee. Merzlikins isn’t ready to return to game action. Matiss Kivlenieks comes on in relief with Veini Vehvilainen backing him up. The hockey world watches, stunned, as another Blue Jackets goalie with a hard to pronounce or spell (at first) name comes in and shuts down one of the top offenses in the NHL. Blue Jackets in 6.
JN: Tampa destroys the Blue Jackets in Games 1, 2, and 3 by a combined score of 18-5. Then, the boys in blue wake up. They give Tampa the good old-fashioned reverse sweep, winning games 4, 5, 6, and 7 thanks to a Cam Atkinson hat trick in Game 7. Let’s get weird.
RM: The Blue Jackets sweep Tampa again. Give me the chaos.
EF: Three Words: Liam. Foudy. Hatty.
CP: Wow. I don’t know how I’m supposed to top these. So let’s get crazy - I want three Joonas Korpisalo shutouts.
Agree? Disagree with everything? Let's hear your takes in the comments.
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