The Columbus Blue Jackets and Tampa Bay Lightning will kick off their first-round playoff matchup on Tuesday afternoon in Toronto. It is an eagerly anticipated rematch from last season when the Blue Jackets shocked the hockey world and swept the President’s Trophy winners out of the playoffs.
What things will we be watching for as this series gets underway? Here are five things that will be worth monitoring.
1. Tampa Bay Is Different
While much of the Lightning roster remains the same, there are some different players on the team now. Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman each came over in trade deadline deals. Pat Maroon signed with the Lightning after winning a Cup with the Blues last season. And Kevin Shattenkirk has enjoyed a nice season after things with the Rangers didn’t work out.
These are significant players especially in a playoff series. What we will watch is what impact these four in particular will have. There’s speed, toughness and defensive depth all accounted for within this group. Will it be enough to finally overcome the Blue Jackets?
Coleman is especially interesting to watch. He’s a speedy winger who has experience playing the Blue Jackets from his time with the Devils. With a more favorable defensive matchup, it will be curious to see if his line can add important secondary scoring. While all the big names will get the attention, Coleman cannot be overlooked. If his line produces, that could spell trouble for the Blue Jackets.
2. Brayden Point’s Impact
I would expect Zach Werenski and Seth Jones to matchup as much as possible with Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov. That will be a fun battle to follow. But it’s Point’s health that has our attention.
Point had hip surgery and you could tell wasn’t at his normal full speed. Thanks to the long layoff with the pandemic, Point has had extra time to rest and recover. He looks much fresher and faster now.
Point just does so many things well. Among them, he opens up ice for Kucherov to do his thing. The Blue Jackets will have to make sure they know where these two are at all times. I’ll be watching to see if Point can find gaps and get open. He’s especially good in tight spaces and making plays out of them. If his line is rolling, they’re almost unbeatable. The Blue Jackets must prioritize this line if they want success.
3. Columbus’ Offense
The Blue Jackets managed to escape the Maple Leafs with no power-play goals scored. That must change against the Lightning.
In addition, other players have to step up. We’ve spoken previously about Oliver Bjorkstrand. But the team as a whole has to elevate their game against a Lightning team with a significantly better defense than the one Toronto had.
Their chances will come if they can manage the puck the way they need to. I’ll be watching possession especially early in this series. The Lightning thrive when they constantly have the puck. The Blue Jackets must impose their will if they hope to break out of their offensive slump. Not having to deal with Victor Hedman potentially could help their cause if he doesn’t play. The Blue Jackets need to make the Lightning defend as much as possible while the Lightning want a track meet. Who gets to their game quicker?
Related: Blue Jackets Qualifying Round Stars
The Blue Jackets defeated the Maple Leafs in large part because of their goaltending. We cannot expect Joonas Korpisalo or whoever is in net to post another .980. So, the focus here will be how the goaltenders deal with adversity when it hits.
Korpisalo was pulled in Game 3 after letting in a bad goal but came back to shutout the Maple Leafs in Game 5. That’s his first adversity test passed of these playoffs. Now the Lightning bring a deeper more talented team into this series. With Merzlikins out indefinitely, it is Korpisalo’s net to start. He will need to be near flawless in this series.
As for Andrei Vasilevskiy, he needs to prove he can win in the playoffs. Another one and done series will put some serious questions out there. He’s proven to be among the best in the regular season. But now is the time for him to show he can do it when it matters too. From a pressure standpoint, it’s on the Lightning. They have the talent and depth to go all the way. But they have to make it happen. They went all-in at the deadline for these playoffs. Vasilevskiy has to do his part. Let’s see how he handles himself mentally as we go.
5. Jon Cooper
Speaking of pressure, here’s Lightning coach Jon Cooper. Fans were outraged at the sweep last season. Imagine if they get bounced again in round one.
John Tortorella outcoached Cooper last season. This series will give Cooper the opportunity to prove that he and the team has learned from last season and show they can win a Stanley Cup.
What adjustments will he make throughout this series? Can he find a way to break down the Blue Jackets’ defense? I’m not sure there’s a coach in these playoffs with more pressure on him to win than Cooper. He will be scrutinized. Let’s see how he handles the attention especially if the Blue Jackets get off to a fast start.