It was always going to turn out this way, wasn’t it? At some point in the playoffs the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Columbus Blue Jackets were destined to meet up, because the sports universe loves narratives. In alternative 2020, where The Pause doesn’t happen, they meet in the Eastern Conference Finals, where the Lightning, having learned the lessons that their first round knockout provided last year, vanquish the Blue Jackets and go on to play for the Stanley Cup. We’ll have to settle for avoiding a repeat of last season.
It was tempting to dig up last season’s series preview and re-run it for this year without changing anything and see how many people noticed. Unfortunately, Columbus did change a few too many key players for that to work out. Still, the central theme of that preview still exists in 2020. What loserpoints wrote then, applies now:
“That season [2016-17], 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.”
There is no reason to believe that won’t happen again over the next two weeks. In fact, it pretty much has to if Columbus wants to win this game because this year, like last year, they can’t match the depth of offense that a fully operational Lightning team can roll out.
We’ve heard all year, and saw by their actions at the trade deadline in acquiring Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman, that the Lightning wanted to be a team that can win games like this. That for all of their speed and skill that they now have the players that can battle along the boards and win 50/50 plays. They spent most of the training camp working on those drills as well as on their breakouts. Quick, accurate passing is the best way to overcome a heavy forecheck and that’s what the Lightning will need to prevent getting bottled up in their own zone. Especially if their best puck-carrying defenseman, Victor Hedman, is sidelined for any length of time.
During the round robin play their ability to execute was a bit of a mixed bag. There were moments when Tampa Bay was able to do that. Early in both games against Boston and Washington they moved quickly into their transition game and were able to set up in their opponents zone. Then, after building a lead, their attention to detail seemed to wane a little bit. The first period against Philadelphia was a complete meltdown. The positive out of all three games is that they never lost their composure and emerged with a victory in two out of the three games.
This series is likely to be a slog. Columbus is going to want to slow down the game, make it a low event affair and counter when the Lightning make mistakes. During their Qualifying Round games against Toronto (a team that bares more than a passing resemblance to the Lightning) they accomplished that:
Their location smack in the middle of the upper left-hand quadrant shows that they limited the quality shots Toronto (a team that posted a 2.51 XGF60 during the regular season) had while also not producing many of their own. That’s “dull” hockey. Spoiler alert - in most of these charts that Sean Tierny produces, the Blue Jackets show up in that category. Expect a lot of play in the neutral zone and along the boards. Shots will be blocked, then blocked again. Open ice, especially in the offensive zone will be limited for the Lightning.
It’s going to be frustrating to watch, and frustrating for the players to have to deal with. However, don’t mistake the fact that they are a bad hockey team because they play a boring style of hockey. Columbus is good. Their top line is solid, and if Victor Hedman is hurt, you can argue that the Seth Jones/Zach Werenski pairing is the best in this series. Top that off with two of the best goaltenders in the Qualifying Round and you can see where this won’t be a cake walk for the Lightning.
For the Lighting to win they are going to have to focus on a couple of key factors
If things are going to be bottled up at 5v5, then the Lightning are going to have to take advantage of the extra space when they’re on the power play. Despite limited chances in their three games during round robin play, they did manage to score twice on the power play. Once was a shot from the point that went off of a skate, the other (Tyler Johnson’s) was the result of solid puck possession and quick passing.
During the regular season (as if that means anything these days) the Lightning had the league’s 5th best power play (23.2%) but it was streaky. Now, with the possibility of two key elements (Hedman and Steven Stamkos) not being available for at least the start of the series, that crucial part of the Lightning’s game will be tested.
The first unit should be alright. Mikhail Sergachev slid into Hedman’s spot as the quarterback and was just fine. Tyler Johnson took Stamkos’ spot on the five-man unit and scored (because that’s what he does in the playoffs). The offensive threat becomes a little more tilted to one side with Stamkos’ off of the ice, since the threat of his booming one-timer from the left circle is removed. However, Nikita Kucherov’s shot is so good, he can still score even if everyone knows he’s shooting.
The Lightning have flipped Johnson and Brayden Point back-and-forth in regards to lining up in the slot. That’s a solid move by the Lightning. Keeping Columbus guessing as to where Point is on the ice isn’t a bad thing. Alex Killorn remains useful as a big body to bounce pucks off of or bang away at rebounds.
The promotion to the first unit of Sergachev and Johnson does weaken the second unit a bit. Kevin Shattenkirk takes over as the offensive defenseman while Coach Cooper will probably cycle through a rotation of players to fill the forward spots. The Lightning have enough depth to still be effective with the second unit.
Columbus faced a pretty good power play in Toronto in their first round of action and ceded two goals on thirteen shorthanded opportunities. They were twelfth in the regular season, killing 81.7% of their penalties. It’s definitely a big advantage for the Lightning and one they need to exploit. In last season’s match-up it was a huge factor as Columbus completely shut down the Lightning power play, extinguishing all ten opportunities that Tampa had with the extra skater.
On the flip side, Columbus’ power play wasn’t good in the regular season (16.4%) and even worse in the Qualifying Round (0.0%).
There may be a chance for the Lightning to generate some momentum swinging offense shorthanded. They have smart, fast forwards who can break up plays at their blueline and possibly catch the Blue Jackets with a breakaway or two.
In their round robin games, when they were able to set up in the offensive zone, it was obvious that the Lightning were looking to work a high-low game. They were focused on getting the puck back to the blueline and having them launch shots at the net for deflections or rebounds. The problem was, they didn’t get very many of those which led to a much lower quality of shots (at least compared to the regular season).
There ability to generate quality shots during the regular season was almost literally off the charts. That’s something they weren’t able to match during their round robin games. Nor were they able to suppress the other teams efforts (although I would bet a strong portion of that came from the Philly game).
Three games is a pretty small sample size and it wasn’t as if they were going full bore at all times like they would (or at least should) in a series that results in an elimination. It is, however, an indication that they aren’t controlling the front of the net as well as they would like to.
Unfortunately, it’s not going to get much easier against the Blue Jackets. Shots will be blocked, oh so many shots will be blocked over the next four-to-seven games. Columbus is also going to look to take away the cross-ice passes that the Lightning use to open up the ice a bit. The Bolts are going to have to be quick and accurate with their passing in the offensive zone in order to keep the Blue Jackets’ defenders moving and shooting lanes open.
On occasion that can be a problem for Lightning forwards. They do try to force passes through from time to time, or just get a little lazy on their drop passes. When that happens they expose themselves to turnovers and odd-man rushes the other way. With Braydon Coburn possibly entering the line-up in Hedman’s place, the defense as a whole is a few steps slower than they would normally be. If they have to chase the Columbus forwards after turning over the puck that’s a recipe for a busy day for Andrei Vasilevksiy.
The defense is going to have to make sure their shots clear the initial line of Blue Jackets defense so that the puck at least gets to an area where it can be tipped on net. The forwards will have to be in position to do the tipping or to screen the Columbus netminders so that they’re forced to make those awkward saves that lead to juicy rebounds. It’s not an easy way to play, but in the postseason, it’s an effective one.
They aren’t going to beat Joonas Korpisalo or Elvis Merzlikins (if he’s healthy enough to play) with unscreened shots so they need to muck things up in front of them.
If the Lightning can control the neutral zone and force some turnovers that will help them out since they are the faster team, especially among the top lines. Using their speed in the transition game to drive the Blue Jacket defenders deeper into the zone can help open up some space for them as well.
On the other side of the ice, the Lightning defense has done a pretty good job all year of limiting high danger chances from their opponents. That’s something that carried over into the first two games of the round robin. Boston and Washington struggled to get much in front of the net against Tampa. Philadelphia was a bit of an exception to that, but that might be chalked up to the Lightning struggling to adjust in the aftermath of the Hedman injury.
Still, there were some red flags during the three games. Three of the goals that Boston and Washington scored came on scrambles in front of the net that the Bolts lost. Their opponents were able to get to rebounds in front (or to the side) of Vasilevskiy and jam the puck home. Philly scored a couple of goals after the Lightning blew coverage or failed to clear pucks.
Columbus specializes in scoring goals like that. The Lightning defense will be under a heavy forecheck and they can’t afford to fling the puck around without a care in the world for where it goes. The forwards will need to be back to help support them and give them options. The defenseman will have to make quick reads, and quick passes to avoid the forecheckers.
If they can do that, they can limit the turnovers and neutralize the advantage that Columbus has on the forecheck.
Should the Lightning execute well in those two areas, things should go alright for them. If they don’t, it could be another disappointing end to the season for the Bolts.
If you’re a fan of short term investing, William Hill Sports Book has the Lightning as -250 favorites to advance to the second round. Columbus is a +210 underdog. Tampa Bay is the biggest favorite in the Eastern Conference.
We reached out to our friends over at Jackets Canon with some questions about their favorite team and how they see the series going. Thank you to @paledragon for taking the time to answer.
How does this year’s Columbus Blue Jackets team differ from last years. In other words, is there any hope that we can avoid the same crippling disappointment that we suffered last year?
It’s much different! Matt Duchene and Artemi Panarin are gone; they provided 12 points in last year’s series. Also gone is two-time Vezina-winning goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, but goaltending has not been a problem for the Jackets this season.
Upon rewatching that series during quarantine, I was struck by what a major factor Josh Anderson was. Tampa had no answer for his size and speed. He has missed most of the season with a shoulder injury and there’s no one else who can do all that he can (when healthy). He is in the bubble and started skating with the team last week, but it’s unclear whether he’d be available in this series or not.
Coach Tortorella has stated that without the play of the goaltenders Columbus wouldn’t be in the bubble. Which of the two (if Elvis’ injury isn’t too bad) gives the Blue Jackets a better chance of winning the series?
The defensive structure of the Blue Jackets means that they can win with either goalie. Both played - and won - in the Toronto series. Despite Joonas Korpisalo getting two shutouts, I think Elvis Merzlikins is the better goalie. He positions himself better and his puck-handling is an important part of the breakout. He’s like a third defenseman and it helps the offense immensely. It’s not a coincidence that the Blue Jackets scored 7 goals in his 2 games, and just 5 in Korpisalo’s 3.5 games. However, Korpisalo only allowed 5 goals in that same span.
Artemi Panarin and Matt Duchene both had a big series against the Lightning last spring and then left in free agency. Who do you expect to pick up the offensive gap left by their departures?
Can I say “no one?” Scoring has been an issue for much of the season and against Toronto as well. Pierre-Luc Dubois and Cam Atkinson led the way in scoring in that series and need to continue producing here. Rookies Liam Foudy and Alexandre Texier (who you may remember scoring two goals in Game 4 last year) have shown some spark as well. A player who really needs to step up is Oliver BJORKSTRAND. He led the team in goals this year despite missing time to injury and scored two game winning goals in last year’s series. He was held without a single point against Toronto. He was collateral damage of Torts shuffling the lines, and they need to find a way to get him more minutes.
What member of the Lightning are you most worried about?
Andrei Vasilevskiy. The Blue Jackets have done a poor job all year of creating high danger chances. If Vasilevskiy plays up to his Vezina form on the few quality chances they get, then I don’t see how they will score outside of some lucky bounces here and there.
I’m predicting Lightning in 6. The Jackets D is enough to take a couple low scoring games, but I think the forward depth of Tampa scores enough to win the rest.