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Why the Lightning want to play the Blue Jackets in the first round

Do I really have to say why?

Tampa Bay Lightning v Columbus Blue Jackets Photo by Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images

One of the intriguing things about this season’s playoffs is that once the play-in round is done, all the teams are going to be reseeded. That means the Tampa Bay Lightning can play any of the eight teams competing in the play-in round. Since the league didn’t respond to our idea of letting the higher seeds pick their opponent, we’re going to point out why the Lightning should want to play any of them.

Bulletin board material? Sure. Will opposing fans throw this in our faces should the Lightning somehow lose against their team? Probably. Possible jinx? If we believed in things like that. A little bit of fun as we wait for their opponent? Definitely.

Today’s first round victim: the Columbus Blue Jackets

Why the Lighting want to see them in the first round

To exorcise the demons of yesteryear. Not many people know this, but the Lightning had a historically awesome team last season. At least in the regular season. Then the playoffs happened. Columbus, who had battled the last month just to make the postseason swept them in the first round. People were sad. They were also mad.

The Lightning had to wear it all season long. No matter how well they did during the regular season, they were reminded about their postseason disaster. What better way to start the play-offs than facing their nemesis. In this mixed up, tricked up season of hockey why wouldn’t the hockey gods have these two teams meet up, giving the Lightning a chance to avenge their humiliation.

While there are a lot of familiar faces on Columbus, a couple of big names are gone. Artemi Panarin is racking up points for the Blue Shirts instead of the Blue Jackets, Sergei Bobrovsky is in Florida, and Matt Duchene, who had 7 points (3 goals, 4 assists) against the Lightning in last year’s series, is in Nashville.

They just don’t have the ability to keep pace with a healthy Lightning. Not only can the Bolts throw out three lines that can score, the defense is in a lot better shape than they were when they lost to the Blue Jackets last year. Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman were banged up and Mikhail Sergachev was still finding his game. Hedman and whoever he pairs with will get the bulk of the play, Ryan McDonagh and Erik Cernak will grind out plenty of playing time, leaving Sergachev and Kevin Shattenkirk to run amok against weaker match-ups.

That defensive depth is going to be the key to the Lightning victory. Columbus will do their best to bottle up Brayden Point and his band of merry scoring men, but they aren’t going to be able to wear down the Tampa Bay blueline.

For the Lightning, the changes they made in the offseason and at the trade deadline were tailored to fixing what ailed them in the series against Columbus last year. They’ve added size and depth up front. Tampa Bay also improved it’s penalty kill, which allowed the Blue Jackets to score five goals in ten opportunities in the four games last year.

The odds of Tampa Bay having their worst week of the season against the Blue Jackets for a second year in a row are highly unlikely. They will be amped up to play Columbus if that’s the hand that’s dealt to them. In this mixed up, tricked up season of hockey why wouldn’t the hockey gods have these two teams meet up?

Blue Jackets regular season

Much wasn’t expected of Columbus at the beginning of the season, and this was before everyone got hurt. From the NHL.com season preview:

Of the 20 NHL.com writers to forecast the upcoming season, just one — Nicholas J. Cotsonika — has picked the Blue Jackets to return to the playoffs. Sports Illustrated’s preseason NHL power rankings have Columbus rated 25th of 31 NHL teams; The Athletic has the team 23rd in its poll; theScore ranks the team 27th.

They finished 13th in the league and were in the hunt for a wild card spot when the season was halted. This was despite losing an astonishing 419 player games to injury. More than half the roster missed multiple games during the regular season including key players such as Seth Jones (14 games), Oliver Bjorkstand (21 games), and Cam Atkinson (26 games).

While their offense was decimated (2.57 goals per game), their defense and goaltending was solid. Lover of hockey hugs Elvis Merzlikins and Joonas Korpisalo formed a solid duo in net while the defense helped them to the third best goals against (2.61) in the league.

Sean Tierney, @ChartingHockey, chartinghockey.ca

As you can see from above, Columbus does a good job of limiting against them while not generating a ton of chances for themselves. So, the duller the game, the happier John Tortorella will be. Well, at least as happy as he can be.

Season Series

The two teams only played once (they were scheduled to meet again on March 27th) and the Lightning won the game.

2/10/20 (OT) Lightning win 2-1 in Columbus

Nikita Kucherov scored both goals while Curtis McElhiney stopped 31 shots. The win came during the Lightning’s 12-game winning streak and while it wasn’t the cleanest win, it was still nice to extract a little revenge. While the Lightning were streaking, the Blue Jackets were just trying to stay afloat. Injuries had hit them to the point that they pulled 20-year-old Liam Foudy out of the OHL to make his NHL debut.

How things could go sideways

If the Lightning are facing the Blue Jackets in the first round, it means Columbus took down the generic version of the Bolts - the Toronto Maple Leafs. Columbus wouldn’t have to change much about their game plan to deal with the offensive firepower Tampa can throw at them.

The game plan for Columbus would mirror what they did last year, forecheck hard and limit their chances by not allowing the Lightning any space in the offensive zone. There is a reason the Bolts spent most of the last two weeks working on breakouts and battle drills. It’s to deal with a team like Columbus.

If their breakouts break down, and Coach Cooper fails to adjust, Tampa could once again see their offense stymied and frustration could boil over like it did last season. While key players from last season are elsewhere the Blue Jackets have a system that allows for just about anyone to step and perform. They can generate offense from the blue line with Jones and Zach Werenski and their goaltending can steal a few games.

Bold prediction if these two teams match up

The Lighting exact revenge in a hard fought seven game series. A sweep would be nice, but Columbus is a good team and they aren’t going to go out like that. Vasilevskiy pitches a shutout in game seven and Kucherov scores twice to advance the Lightning to the next round.