The Blue Jackets push for their third straight victory, and they’ll need to go through first place Tampa Bay to do it. The Jackets visit the Lightning on Saturday night, the best offense in the NHL and winners in seven of their last 10.
The Blue Jackets gave up 55 shots and 99 attempts against the Panthers on Thursday night, but they survived thanks to Sergei Bobrovsky and one of the better goaltending performances in Blue Jackets history. A similar defensive showing against Tampa Bay would likely end with a much different result.
Like usual, Steven Stamkos leads the charge up front for the Bolts. Stamkos is fourth in the league in scoring with 32 points and his 16 goals are tied for second in the NHL. His shotgun partner used to be Martin St. Louis, but since St. Louis was traded, it’s been another undrafted and undersized youngster putting up the big numbers. Tyler Johnson is following up a terrific rookie season with an even better sophomore campaign, already with 28 points, seventh-best in hockey. Ryan Callahan, who came over in the St. Louis trade, already has 11 goals and 22 points.
Defensively, the Lightning were without Victor Hedman for 18 games with a broken finger, but hardly missed a beat. Anton Stralman has been one of the league’s best defensemen with a +17 rating to go along with 13 points, and Jason Garrison’s heavy shot has already generated 15 points. Hedman is back and has three points in four games. Add Ben Bishop and his 2.20 goals against average and the Lightning are solid all the way through.
The Lightning came to Nationwide Arena back on Nov. 8, and it was a 7-4 Lightning win that was over almost as soon as it started. The Lightning jumped all over Columbus in the first period, taking a 4-0 lead into the intermission. Showing the depth of the Lightning squad, it wasn’t the big names that pushed the Bolts to the early lead. JT Brown, Cedric Paquette, Brian Boyle and Stralman all scored for Tampa, with Callahan and Johnson (2) adding three more before the final buzzer.
The Blue Jackets did push back. Scott Hartnell scored twice and Ryan Johansen and Nick Foligno found the net as well, but despite closing with two goals, the outcome was never really in question. Hartnell has not scored a goal since that game and is looking to get back on track offensively.
Brett Connolly played 68 games in his rookie season (2011-12) and put up 15 points before spending the vast majority of the next two seasons in the AHL. Connolly is showing signs that he’s gaining a touch for the pro game with three goals in his last three games, including a two-goal game against the Rangers. He has five goals and no helpers on the season, and he’s also been an effective player on the power play. Connolly scored 86 goals in 144 junior games and has an excellent release. If he is truly getting the hang of the speed in the NHL and can become a regular contributor, he is a strong supplementary threat to the offense the Lightning already have.
Tyler Johnson has a five game point scoring streak, racking up two goals and seven points over that time. Johnson has six multi-point games centering the Lightning’s second line, which is possibly the most dangerous thing about him. The top unit of Stamkos, Callahan, and Alex Killorn has been very productive the last two weeks, and Johnson is putting up the points while lifting the games of line mates Nikita Kucherov (9-13-22) and Ondrej Palat (7-11-18). If the Stamkos line is the strong right hook, Johnson’s line is the sharp uppercut that follows. The Blue Jackets will need to lock down on one of them just to keep off the ropes.
The special teams battle
The Blue Jackets took four penalties in the second period against the Panthers. Taking penalties is obviously never good, but it’s even worse when it disrupts the flow of the game 5-on-5, something the Jackets must keep in mind against the Lightning. The Lightning’s vertical game at even strength will serve as a monstrous challenge, and the mixing and matching that results from multiple penalties will make it difficult for Richards to get matchups that he likes, even more so with Lightning coach Jon Cooper having the last change. On the power play, the Lightning are lethal and are currently ranked fifth in the NHL. They can beat you any number of ways, with two of the league's better power play point men in Hedman and Garrison, Ryan Callahan a menace in front, Valtteri Filppula as one of the better power play set-up men, and Steven Stamkos’ patented one-timer from the top of the circle. The Lightning power play was 2-for-3 in the last meeting against the Blue Jackets, and logic says the best way to stop it is never to face it.