The Columbus Blue Jackets and Tampa Bay Lightning squared off in a memorable series last April in the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
They will get to rekindle old times Monday when the Blue Jackets host the Lightning in Ohio’s capital. It will be the first of three meetings this season between the teams, who put on a heated battle in their Eastern Conference quarterfinal clash last spring.
The eighth-seeded Blue Jackets, who had never won a playoff series in the history of their franchise, stunned the hockey world with a four-game sweep of the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Lightning. They were anchored by standout performances from forward Artemi Panarin and goalie Sergei Bobrovsky plus a gritty style of play that frustrated heavily favored Tampa Bay.
Panarin, Bobrovsky and trade deadline acquisition Matt Duchene left in free agency last July, but the Blue Jackets have found their groove and are still winning. The club recently moved out of a wild-card spot and into third place in the Metropolitan Division.
Despite falling 2-1 to the Colorado Avalanche Saturday night, the Jackets’ defense and goaltending have moved them steadily up the standings. Netminder Elvis Merzlikins has authored five shutouts in the last nine contests, and the team’s goalies have a league-high seven on the season.
Merzlikins has taken the No. 1 spot in the blue paint since Joonas Korpisalo was injured on Dec. 29. Korpisalo has not dressed for the past 17 games.
“What Elvis is doing is pretty spectacular in such a magnified position,” Columbus captain Nick Foligno said.
The high-scoring Lightning turned to a different approach Saturday night against the New York Islanders. Instead of taking their strength — the elite offensive skills of captain Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point — and trying to overwhelm the defensive-minded Islanders, the Bolts matched the visitors’ ability to defend.
Goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped 17 of 18 shots, and the Lightning used a stingy defense in a 3-1 win over the Islanders.
“You have to play different ways to win. You have to adapt,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “The boys cared about getting two points no matter how to do it even if it wasn’t going to be flashy, and that’s what happened.”
Up 1-0 on Point’s 20th goal entering the third, Tampa Bay locked down its defensive end in front the Russian backstop. The Lightning limited the slumping Islanders, who lost third place in the Metro to Columbus, to only five shots in the final 20 minutes. Vasilevskiy ran his club-record point streak to 18 consecutive games (16-0-2) with the victory.
Kucherov produced two assists to give him 18 points (eight goals, 10 helpers) in his 10-game point streak. Stamkos’ tally gave him 15 (nine goals, six assists) in a streak of the same length.
Last season’s winner of the Hart Trophy (MVP), Art Ross Trophy (top scorer) and Ted Lindsay Award (most outstanding player), Kucherov became just the fifth different player in the last 30 years to register at least five point streaks of 10-plus games over a span of three seasons.
Cruising in second place in the Atlantic Division behind the Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay has won six straight and has at least a point in eight consecutive games (7-0-1).
–Field Level Media