If the round-robin games were any indication, Tampa could be ready to seek vengeance against the team that knocked them out last season. They went toe-to-toe against the elite Eastern conference teams in Boston and Washington and Tampa Bay came out with a win both times.
If you didn’t read it before, I mentioned in my playoff preview that Tampa Bay was one of the best teams in terms of C/60 and xG/60. Not the be-all and end-all but it gives us an indication that they may be able to overpower the Blue Jackets’ defence if they’re able to play their game. However, hockey can be a random sport sometimes and Tampa will know all about that considering they were swept by Columbus in their first-round series of last years playoffs.
This year, it’s different. Both teams have changed drastically, which should ultimately benefit the Lightning. At the deadline, they acquired Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow. These two will be great matches against the Blue Jackets. They allow Tampa to play a versatile game if their opponents do try to grind them down.
On the flip side, Columbus lost key guys like; Ryan Dzingel, Matt Duchene, Artemi Panarin, and Sergei Bobrovsky. That’s not to say that they lost all their offensive star power. If Andrei Vasilevskiy is able to play solidly between the pipes, he should be able to stop their offense.
If you watched the play-in, you’ll know Columbus was able to shut-out a similarly composed Toronto team in two out of five games. They did this by grinding them down, playing an aggressive forecheck, and getting into shooting lanes. Considering offense is the bread and butter of Tampa’s game, it’s something they should keep an eye on heading into this series.
Although Philadelphia is a more complete team, it should be noted, they were able to shut down Tampa in their round-robin game. The Flyers, similarly to the Blue Jackets, are a very tough team that forechecks very hard. It might not be an issue as they have more offensive star power than Columbus. I still think it’s something that should be kept in mind.
As it sits right now; Captain Steven Stamkos and top blueliner Victor Hedman could miss quite a few games during this first-round match-up at least. This will really hurt Tampa’s chances in any series, let alone a series against an opponent like the Blue Jackets.
Stamkos is out with a lower-body injury and Coach Jon Cooper said he was out indefinitely, so we really have no timeline of when he’ll be back. Especially now with less information getting released due to Covid-19 concerns, we may not know until he’s ready to come back.
Victor Hedman left their final round-robin game against the Flyers after an awkward turn. He hasn’t returned and like Stamkos, there is no set timeline for him either. Looking at the play, it’s hard to imagine he’ll be able to step back in at 100%. Should he come back, even at 80% he’s still better than many defensemen in the league and would be a big boost for the Lightning.
Victor Hedman – If he’s able to play, Hedman will log big minutes. He can help push their offense and simultaneously be the workhorse on their backend. He can easily be a deciding factor given his skillset.
Steven Stamkos – Stamkos is an elite level goal scorer when he’s healthy. If he does come back, he’ll be a big key to Tampa Bay’s offense. He’s also their captain so he has a big voice in the room and should be able to help motivate the team if need be.
Joonas Korpisalo – Korpisalo proved that he was a big piece of the Blue Jackets puzzle in their play-in series. If Tampa has any hope of winning this series, they’ll need to figure out how to beat Korpisalo.
Elvis Merzlikins – I put Merzlikins here because as we saw in the play-in series if Korpisalo needs a break, he can step right in. He came in during the 2nd period of game three and was able to shut the Leafs out for the remainder of that game and the majority of game four. Tampa Bay will need to be able to beat both goalies to win this series.
Andrei Vasilevskiy – As we saw in the series against Toronto, your goalie needs to be solid if you have any hope of beating Columbus. Especially on nights where you just can’t break through, your goalie has to be able to shut the door and hold up his end of the bargain if you’re going to come out victorious.
Pierre-Luc Dubois – As we saw the last series, Dubois is an elite-level talent. He’s able to fit into Columbus’ defensive heavy system and grind down opponents in his own right. He’s also able to carry the team on his back as we saw in game three where he scored a hat-trick, including the overtime winning goal to give Columbus a stranglehold on Toronto.
To reiterate, Columbus is a very good defensive team. They have offensive weapons but their biggest strength is their defense. As long as Tampa can break-through, they should be able to win. I’m banking on players like Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov to carry the load offensively. They also have competent secondary scoring in players like; Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, and Alex Killorn that they should be able to support their stars.
I’m also banking on Mikhail Sergachev and Ryan McDonagh to log big minutes in the absence of Victor Hedman. In net, they have Vezina candidate Andrei Vasilevskiy who should give them a chance to win every single night.
My Prediction: Tampa Bay win the series in 7 games.
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