The Blue Jackets' Identity Has (Finally) Found Them Success Against Tampa Bay

By Chris Pennington on April 14, 2019 at 12:02 pm
Zach Werenski and Seth Jones tie up Alex Killorn in Game 1 against the Tampa Bay Lightning
Kim Klement – USA TODAY Sports

When your focus is to outwork your opponent, it's hard to do. But for the Columbus Blue Jackets, it's a must.

Shortly after the Blue Jackets took a 2-0 series lead over the Tampa Bay Lightning in the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the hockey world lost its mind.

Why? Well, this juggernaut of a team in Tampa Bay was being regarded as one of the best - if not, the best - hockey team every put together in a regular season. The Blue Jackets apparently didn't get the memo, though, that those claims are supposed to apply to the playoffs as well.

Which begs the question: after an inconsistent regular season and photo-finish into making the playoffs, how are the Blue Jackets finding this success against this Lightning club?

GM Jarmo Kekalainen might have an answer.

"I think this is the Blue Jacket style that we have had as our identity for a while," said Kekalainen on Saturday morning on a media conference call. "It's hard work, (being) relentless on forechecking's something we've got to keep doing."

The modern NHL has a focus on speed, scoring and teams possessing skilled forwards and offensive-minded defensemen. Tampa Bay has adapted to this model perfectly; in 2018-19, they boasted three 40-goal scorers, four defensemen with more than 40 points, and an explosive offense top-to-bottom that relies on its transition game to strike fear (and goals) into its opponents. 

Then, we have the Columbus Blue Jackets.

A club with one, true offensive-minded defenseman in Zach Werenski, a few skilled wingers, and a lot of bruising forwards in its top 12. They're focused on countering, manufacturing offense and allowing their top-end players to make plays when the opportunity presents itself.

And it's working so far in these playoffs.

"It's the Blue Jackets brand that we've been preaching as our identity for a long time," Kekalainen said. "We're hard to play against. Nothing comes easy for the opponent."

The Lightning aren't arrogant to outworking their opponent, but with how talented of a roster they have, they just may not be used to having to rely on that play style as much as the Blue Jackets have. Lightning coach Jon Cooper's comments after Game 1 showed he understands this reality:

"Our mentality was that we wanted to outscore them tonight, instead of build a lead and shut them down," Cooper said.

The Blue Jackets have looked like the better team against the Lightning so far in this series, but there's also a lot of reasons why Tampa Bay was being regarded in the light that they were heading into the playoffs. Until the final buzzer goes off and Columbus records their fourth victory, this series is not close to being over, and the Blue Jackets seem to be keeping this in mind.

"We believe in our team, but we know how good the opponent is, and we're taking nothing for granted," Kekalainen said. "We're appreciating every little piece of success we can have throughout this series, (but) I'm not going to get into analyzing where we thought we would be, where we are. We've just got to concentrate on the next game."

For the remainder of this series, the Blue Jackets must continue to dig into their identity: one focused on making life difficult for the opponent – in this case, an opponent that didn't have much difficulty navigating a 62-win regular season.