The Stanley Cup Playoffs have finally arrived; four months later than they would typically start due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The NHL has successfully instituted hub cities in Toronto and Edmonton for the Eastern and Western Conference playoffs. It is a full go with zero positive COVID-19 tests among 7,245 tests administered.
Kicking off the Stanley Cup Playoffs is possibly the most anticipated matchup of them all: the Columbus Blue Jackets taking on the Tampa Bay Lightning. This is mostly due to this series being a rematch of the 2019 first-round series where the President’s Trophy winners in the Lightning were swept by the eighth-seeded Blue Jackets. This included a Blue Jackets 4-3 victory in Game 1 after trailing 3-0.
This drew many comparisons to Virginia’s historic loss to 16th-seeded UMBC in the 2018 NCAA Tournament, the first-ever one seed to lose to a 16 seed. A year later, Virginia returned to the tournament and captured the championship.
It was a remarkable redemption story and the Lightning have the chance to make their own redemption story in 2020. The big difference is the Lightning get a chance to get revenge on the team that humiliated them the season before.
The Lightning accumulated 92 points before COVID-19 suspended play, placing them second in the Atlantic Division behind the defending Eastern Conference champions, the Boston Bruins. They led the NHL in goals scored with 243. Leading the way for the Lightning is right winger Nikita Kucherov, who leads the team with 85 points, ranking him seventh of all NHL skaters. He also ranks eighth in assists with 52. Just as important is defenseman Victor Hedman, who ranks third in the NHL in points with 55 among defensemen and fourth in assists with 44.
The Lightning, as usual, were great in the regular season. In the round-robin tournament among the top-four teams in each conference, the Lightning defeated the Bruins and Washington Capitals while losing 4-1 to the top-seeded Philadelphia Flyers. They received the two seed but will have to face the Blue Jackets shorthanded. Hedman injured his ankle in the loss to the Flyers and they are already without defenseman Jan Rutta. To make matters worse, captain Steven Stamkos, second-leading point scorer on the team with 66 points, is out indefinitely with a lower-body injury.
If they are going to get revenge against the Blue Jackets, they will need to do so without some key pieces.
As for the Blue Jackets, they won their first-ever playoff series last year after their historic sweep of the Lightning. They would lose to the Bruins in six games in the next round, but the season was the best in franchise history. This offseason, they lost their top two goal-scorers in last year’s playoffs in Artemi Panarin and Matt Duchene, along with their goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky.
The Blue Jackets were once again a fringe playoff team with a stellar goaltending duo in Elvis Merzlikins, sixth in the NHL in save percentage (SV%) and Joonas Korpisalo. They relied on their defense as they were third in fewest goals allowed but scored the fourth-fewest goals. They were devastated with injuries in February and March but were healthy when play resumed in August.
Columbus took on the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers, the round where each series was best-of-five. The only one to go all five games was the Blue Jackets-Maple Leafs series. The series composed of shutouts and insane comebacks. The teams traded shutouts in Games 1 and 2 before each team traded 3-0 comebacks, which resulted in overtime victories. Game 5 was another shutout and the second of the series for Korpisalo as the Blue Jackets won 3-0.
I expect this series to be a battle as we have an offense vs defense showdown. The Lightning are the more talented team but are banged up and without some key pieces. The Lightning will fight to get revenge for last year but I do not think they will. Great goaltending, the strength of the Blue Jackets, can mask team deficiencies and carry a team on a deep run (2017 Nashville Predators). I think the immovable object will stop the unstoppable force as the Blue Jackets’ defense will be too much for the Lightning to handle. The Lightning will not receive their vengeance this year.
Prediction: Columbus in 6