SCHEDULE: Game 1 Wednesday 6pm, Game 2 Friday 6pm, Game 3 Sunday 6pm, Game 4 April 16th 6pm
This is what happens when you’re the best—you get the first-round match-up that should be a breeze. There are of course reasons why it may not be a total incineration, but not only are the Lightning far and away the best team in the league, they’ve also been particularly adept at fucking with the Blue Jackets. I think we all know how this ends, but for the sake of argument, let’s take a closer look:
Goalies: It’s strange to start off saying Sergei Bobrovsky isn’t the better goalie in a match-up, but here we are. And in fact that’s not totally fair—Bob is still plenty good and is the most important player on the team (Panarin devotees, calm down). Aside from the loss to Boston a few days ago, he hasn’t had a game with a save percentage below .920 since mid-March, and he went 7-1 the last two weeks including throwing three shutouts. But those weren’t against the Ning. In fact, two came against non-playoff teams.
The issue isn’t just if Bobrovsky is talented enough to handle the Lightning’s obscene scoring ability—he could definitely make a run at that in a vacuum—but it’s whether he can do so despite getting rattled by this team this year and also if he can do so in the playoffs, where he’s typically struggled. Maybe if it were a more suspect goalie on the other side of the ice one would say yes, but Andrei Vasilevskiy is not suspect. Not only is his playoff record stronger (.919 SV%, 2.68 GAA vs. Bob’s .891 and 3.49), but he’s been outstanding his last couple games to boot (2-0, .944 SV% in April) without any of the drama that Bob & Co. have been dealing with to make it into the playoffs. Throw in the fact that getting pulled against Tampa back in January led to a tantrum from Bob and some resulting scratches, and it doesn’t bode well for Columbus. Yes, Bobrovsky can always steal a game and certainly gives you a chance on any given night, but with Vasilevskiy in goal there’s not much room for error.
Defense: The big news for the Lightning is that Victor Hedman is practicing, but if he’ll play or what level of brown brain he may have are still open questions. None of their other defensemen’s possession numbers are going to blow you away, and it’s been known all season that their defense isn’t otherworldly, but it doesn’t have to be thanks to the fact that their offense is. Remember, this team is actually playing Jan Rutta right now so that should tell you something.
But are the Jackets really any better? They give up fewer shots per game, and their PK is tied with the Lightning for best in the league (85%). So there’s certainly a case to be made, but it’s the quality of the offense they’re facing that’s going to make the difference. Can Zach Werenski and Seth Jones really handle either of the top two Tampa lines? You’d be forgiven for being skeptical. In their three games this season, no one could. The Jackets gave up 17 goals to the Lightning and it’s not like Tampa’s gotten worse over that time.
Forwards: Here’s where the Lightning are at their most ridiculous. You already know—the speed, the scoring ability, Kucherov with 128 points, Stamkos and Point with 98 and 92, respectively, yada yada yada. They’re fucking good. But what about so many Hawks fans’ wet dream, Artemi Panarin, with his 87 points? Sure, fine, whatever, but the Jackets just don’t have the scoring depth the Lightning have. No one does. The top line of Panarin, Cam Atkinson and Pierre-Luc Dubois are no bums or anything, and their numbers bear that out just fine (55 CF%, 57 GF%, 55.8 HDCF%), but there’s just not enough beyond them.
Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel have done basically jack shit since coming to Columbus, and sure, Oliver Bjorkstrand is on a streak right now with goals in nine of his last 10 games and a total of 23, but if that top line on the Jackets is shut down, they don’t have anyone to answer with. And once the record gets really lopsided and Panarin and Bob start thinking about that Florida sunshine and lack of income tax, their give-a-shit meters might just float away with their thoughts.
Prediction: I’m going to be very generous here and say that Bob steals one for the Jackets. Maybe Hedman can’t go, maybe the Lightning defense shits the bed a little too much, and maybe Panarin’s line has a big night. But they won’t get much more than one, so they better enjoy it. Lightning in 5.