Lightning-Blue Jackets Playoff Preview
Winning 62 games is an extraordinary feat. But if the Lightning don’t win the Cup, the season will be deemed a failure. Such are the stakes as Tampa Bay readies for puck drop against the Columbus Blue Jackets for Round 1 on Wednesday night. Listed below are five salient questions and my prediction heading into the series.
What are the matchups to watch heading into the series?
The matchup that has me the most intrigued is the Blue Jackets’ putative second line of Josh Anderson-Matt Duchene-Ryan Dzingel line versus whichever players on the Lightning they face. My curiosity partly stems from the enormous defensive vulnerability this Columbus line presents against a Lightning team that has a penchant for striking quickly and often. If this series gets ugly in a game or two, I think this line will be the chief offender.
Since Duchene and Dzingel were traded to Columbus from the Ottawa Senators at the deadline, they have played 16 games with Anderson (for over 100 minutes at 5v5) and this line has a -15 Corsi Plus-Minus. As a duo, Duchene and Dzingel have a -17 Scoring Chances Plus-Minus since joining the Blue Jackets. That is really bad! But I suppose it isn’t all that surprising. The Senators were a disaster this season with both players on the squad, and both of them contributed to the team’s death spiral.
Simply put: Dzingel and Duchene surrender more than they manufacture. On Ottawa, their line with Bobby Ryan was a -24 Corsi Plus-Minus with a -4 Goal Plus-Minus in just under 200 minutes. As a duo in Ottawa, they had a -37 Scoring Chances Plus-Minus. It is almost like a virus has attached itself to a new host. The new milieu hasn’t affected Dzingel and Duchene’s behavior, and surely coach Jon Cooper will be eager to give his best offensive players abundant opportunities against these two former Senators. But it might be mostly the Steven Stamkos line that reaps the benefits.
Cooper likes deploying Brayden Point against opponent’s top lines, and Nikita Kucherov, and Yanni Gourde will join him in the effort to dismantle and destroy Columbus’s line of Artemi Panarin, Pierre-Luc Dubois, and Cam Atkinson. (Tyler Johnson played most of the season with Point and Kucherov, but of late Cooper has favored Gourde as that complementary F3.) Point will sink deep in the offensive zone to help out Ryan McDonagh and Erik Cernak, and Kucherov and Gourde will be attentive to their duties as the outlet on breakouts. Ryan McDonagh and Erik Cernak are the Lightning’s shutdown defensive pair. Mobile, physical, and good passers, they will make the rush and cycle taxing for the Dubois line.
But the efficacy of the McDonagh-Cernak pairing will also be determined by how aggressively they are allowed to play in the neutral zone and how tight a gap they can proffer on the Blue Jackets’ entries. If the Point line is enthusiastically present in transition defense, McDonagh and Cernak will be given license to let their Id run wild. McDonagh and Cernak will wreak havoc if they have support underneath and are emboldened to try to intercept passes or use their physicality to stall the transportation of the puck.
While this approach is true for McDonagh and Cernak against the Blue Jackets’ first line, it is also true writ large for the Lightning. If the Tampa Bay forwards surge back in to offer back pressure, the Lightning defensemen can play assertively not only to hinder the Blue Jackets’ offense but also to ramp up Tampa Bay’s playmaking. In the offensive zone, the weak-side defensemen can cut to the net knowing the F3 and lower forwards will be sprinting up the middle if the puck gets turned over. Same goes for jumping in as the trailer on the rush.
What will be the strategy for the Blue Jackets?
The Blue Jackets want to slow the game down and keep it low scoring. They will be chipping the puck deep and forcing the Lightning defensemen to turn and retrieve the puck in the corners. They will use their forecheck to pummel Tampa Bay’s defensemen and force turnovers on a breakout that can be flustered. Ideally, this would produce an endless Blue Jackets cycle that exhausts the Lightning skaters, possibly forcing Tampa Bay to commit a few penalties. It could also generate so much traffic that goaltender Andre Vasilevskiy will not be able to see the shooters’ release points as pucks find the opening through the stacks of bodies. At least that is the plan.
Coach Jon Tortorella will be eager to use Zach Werenski and Seth Jones to try to slow down the Kucherov line. Both Jones and Werenski are gifted puck movers and have above-average vision, and the best thing for the Blue Jackets would be forcing the Kucherov line to relinquish the puck in the neutral zone or at the blue line, and forcing Werenski and Jones into consistent retrievals. Those two are so good at steering the puck out of trouble and initiating the transition that the Kucherov line would never find a rhythm.
There could be room for counterattack chances for the Dubois line as well. The biggest pitfall for the Kucherov line would be if they overpass. Point is the worst culprit, but Kucherov has demonstrated excessive selflessness in prime scoring areas at various parts of the season, resulting in turnovers and counterattack chances for the opposition. Overpassing is just poor puck management with a different gloss.
Should the Lightning only rely on direct passing out of the defensive zone on breakouts?
Since the Blue Jackets’ strategy will depend on hemming the Lightning in their own zone and establishing territorial advantage, the Lightning should not be reluctant to utilize indirect passes to exit the zone. The Lightning are the faster team, and especially against the Blue Jackets’ second and third pair defensemen, chucking the puck toward the boards in the neutral zone and letting their speedy forwards chase it down is a nice way to halt extended time in their own end and possibly create some offense as well.
Indirect passing out of the zone can be a dangerous strategy against an opponent like the Capitals. Washington has the speed and skill to efficiently regroup and return to attacking against a tired group of Lightning skaters who just relaxed their defensive posture and wasted an attempt to direct pass out of their own zone. But Columbus isn’t Washington, and creating a race in the neutral zone also presents the possibility of putting the Blue Jackets’ weaker defensive pairs on their heels against the very fast and skilled role players for the Lightning. It is unclear what line Mathieu Joseph will be used on, but that line should be eager to let him act as a one-man breakout any time trouble is brewing.
What role will special teams and goaltending have in this series?
The Lightning are better in both categories, but if they need to rely on either to save them, that not only spells trouble in this round but likely in future rounds. How much physicality is permitted will be a fascinating subplot of this series, because both teams are going to want to pound the opposition, but at what cost? If the Blue Jackets put the Lightning on the power play, they are tempting fate like a diabetic gorging on a box of donuts a day.
At the same time, despite the friskiness of the Lightning penalty kill, and how dangerous Anthony Cirelli and Stamkos are to score shorthanded, the Lightning are demonstrably worse off down a man. If the Lightning are racking up five or more penalties, and Kucherov and Point are frozen out of the game, maybe Sergei Bobrovsky plays well enough to pick off a game or two. For 82 games, the Lightning have escaped the consequences of accruing too many penalties, but it is an easier task to pick a corner in the top half of the net or obstruct Vasilevskiy’s vision on the power play. If Vasilevskiy can see it, he usually stops it. If the puck is shot toward the lower half of the net, he generally absorbs it.
Who is one player to spotlight?
Rookie Anthony Cirelli might be the Lightning’s fourth best forward. Near the end of the season, his prominence grew as he started to see more minutes not just in overtime and shorthanded, but also on four-on-four and with two of the The Big Three (Kucherov, Point, and Stamkos). Cirelli has been an all-world penalty killer because he is a relentless pursuer of the puck who takes a mesmerizingly good angle when trying to disarm his opponent. This also makes him a skilled forechecker, and his knack for making plays in traffic and deflecting pucks seemed to solidify him as an ideal third-line center.
But in the second half of the season, Cirelli’s additional skills became apparent. He demonstrated an ability to make plays in open ice. He has great speed, the Lightning knew that, but his hands, playmaking ability, and catch-and-release shot continue to impress. When he is on the ice, good things happen, which is why Cooper will likely use him with Stamkos to close out games when the Lightning have a one-goal lead and the opponent has pulled their goalie.
I think the Blue Jackets have good pieces, but are a few years away. Unfortunately for them, Tampa Bay is a buzzsaw. And when the Lightning dial it up, they can look close to unstoppable. I think two of the games will be close, but the series will end quickly.
Lightning in four