The Tampa Bay Lighting start their playoffs on Wednesday at home against the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Lightning enter the series following an historic regular season that saw them match the all-time wins record. The Jackets barely made it into the playoffs as the last wild card team in the Eastern Conference needing a late season push to cross the threshold.
As expected, Tampa are the favorites in this series. Dom Luszczyszyn has the Lightning at 75%, which is the heaviest I’ve seen them favored by any of the public models. Micah Blake Mccurdy’s model is more conservative putting the Bolts at 58% to win the series.
For Columbus, this is the beginning of a referendum on General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen’s wild trade deadline. He left the team only a third and seventh round pick in this summer’s draft in the process of wheeling and dealing to acquire Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, and Adam McQuaid. In addition to the acquisitions, he also held on to Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky who will both be unrestricted free agents this summer.
To fall out in the first round would bring the value of those moves into question and put even more pressure on Kekalainen to re-sign at least one of the new faces. If Panarin, Bobrovsky, and Duchene all leave and the Jackets have already punted on this summer’s draft, that will likely increase the temperature on the GM’s seat to an uncomfortable degree.
In some ways, one could argue that the Jackets might be the more desperate team. But I’m not sure that’s accurate. The desperation is felt primarily by the front office. For the players on the ice who all have free agency ahead of them, while they of course want to advance this year, this is far from the last opportunity they’ll have to do so. And probably far from the best as well.
The Lightning are also desperate. Desperate in that they’ve been the best team this season and know that this will likely be their best chance to win a Stanley Cup. All of the best players are in their primes. The salary cap crunch hits even harder this summer. Next season could feature downgrades at several positions. 2019 might be the best opportunity this group will have.
In that way, maybe the Lightning are the more desperate team. This collection of players knows the stakes. Their loss in last season’s Eastern Conference Final is still fresh. Much of the roster was also here for the 2015 Stanley Cup Final and 2016 Eastern Conference Final losses. Their path to the only thing that will truly make this season feel like a success starts with beating Columbus.
But games aren’t determined by who’s more desperate. They’re determined by how the teams play on the ice. So let’s dive into the stats and get an idea of where each team stands heading into the first round.
In terms of 5v5 play, the bar that jumps off the page is Columbus’ shot danger suppression. They’ve been awful in that area all season. Against possibly the best shooting team in the league, that could be a problem. The Lightning are good enough at scoring from low danger areas. If they have easy access to high danger areas, the Jackets could be in for a rough time.
On special teams, both sides have been good on the penalty kill. The Jackets have been particularly outstanding only being let down by their goaltending. Neither team has a great power play in terms of expected goals but Tampa’s shooting talent makes them convert at a high rate.
For most teams, constantly settling for shots from the faceoff circles would be a sub-optimal strategy. But for a team with Steven Stamkos in one circle and Nikita Kucherov in the other, it becomes an optimal one. Especially when combined with Brayden Point working as a third option in the slot.
The most encouraging sign for Columbus heading into this series is their recent play. Over the final ten games of the season, they looked great. They played well at 5v5 and got strong shooting and goaltending to buoy their results. They played a mixed schedule during this stretch beating up on some weaker teams but also split four games against teams that made the playoffs
An optimist would say this is the team starting to come together after a period of adjustment following all the moves at the trade deadline. If they play in this series the way they finished the season, the Lightning could be in for a difficult first round. This is particularly true if Bobrovsky continues to play well. Despite a down season, he’s still one of the best goalies in the league and a seven game hot streak for him could end the Lightning’s season prematurely.
With a good idea of how the teams compare, let’s get into the individual skaters. On the heat maps, blue is good, gray is average, and orange is bad. We’ll start with the Lightning.
If you’ve been reading along here all season, none of these numbers should surprise you. The Lightning have incredible depth, particularly at forward. They finished the year with every regular skater being above replacement level. That’s only the second time that’s happened since we have data going back to 2007-2008.
Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, and Steven Stamkos drive the offense. Anthony Cirelli and Alex Killorn anchor the defensive third line. Yanni Gourde and J.T. Miller slot in anywhere they’re needed. Mathieu Joseph and Adam Erne bring energy and some scoring pop to the fourth line.
On defense, Victor Hedman is again in the Norris Trophy conversation. Ryan McDonagh has also been great giving the Lightning two players capable of carrying a pairing. But McDonagh hasn’t had to do that this season because of the emergence of Erik Cernak. The rookie looks every bit a top four defender and has taken the toughest minutes with McDonagh rarely looking out of place.
The rest of the defense is in flux. The coaches have lots of options but don’t seem to have settled on a true top six yet. Look for one of Dan Girardi or Anton Stralman to play limited minutes with Hedman and the third pair will likely be Braydon Coburn and Mikhail Sergachev.
The Jackets, while also a good team, don’t have the depth of the Lightning as evidenced by the amount of gray and orange on their chart.
The top of their forward group is strong. Panarin, Pierre Luc-Dubois, and Duchene have all been excellent. Dzingel, Cam Atkinson, Josh Anderson and others have all been key contributors. Anderson has been particularly good contributing in all areas.
On defense, Columbus has two stars: Zack Werenski and Seth Jones. Neither has quite played to the level they’ve shown in previous seasons. Where Jones was deserving of Norris votes last year, he’s taken a small step back this year. Supporting the two stars all season have been David Savard, Markus Nutivaara, and Ryan Murray (currently out with an upper-body injury) who, while they don’t contribute much offensively, have been standouts defensively.
The challenge for Columbus will be figuring out how to deal with Tampa’s depth. The Bolts have two dominant scoring lines and a shutdown line. No matter how the Jackets approach the series, they’re going to have to settle for less than ideal matchups. The key for them will be how they minimize the time stuck in those situations but realistically, they’ll probably have to rely heavily on Bobrovsky to carry them through.
The Season Series
As a final step, let’s look at the numbers from the three games the teams played this season.
The Lightning handled the Jackets comfortably in all three games with a total score of 17-3. The underlying numbers weren’t quite that lopsided. Columbus actually outshot the Bolts but Tampa led in expected goals, mostly due to their ability to generate dangerous shots, which makes sense given what we saw in the team charts. So even if the scoreboard might be a little misleading here, the Lightning were still the better team in these three games.
Going back even further, the Bolts have won all six games against Columbus over the last two seasons. But 2016-17 was different. That season, the Jackets won all three games using an aggressive forecheck and sound defense that frustrated the Lightning. John Tortorella could deploy a similar game plan in an attempt to take away the Lightning’s space to play their skilled game. So far this season though, he hasn’t been able to replicate that success.
But none of those games came after the trade deadline. So the Lightning haven’t seen these new look Jackets with Duchene and Dzingel. Columbus will be hoping that those additions to their forward group along with improved play from Bobrovsky will level what was a decidedly tilted season series.
The Lightning are looking to continue a historic season. The Jackets are looking to finally achieve some playoff success. For either team, an elimination would cause fallout. Seven games stand between each of these organizations and a reckoning with a new reality this summer.