The Blue Jackets look to recover from their loss to the Panthers on Thursday night against the other NHL resident of Florida. The Jackets head to Amalie Arena for the second time this season to face the Atlantic-leading Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Lightning have had the unenviable task of running in a three-team race atop the Atlantic for most of the season, with neither the Montreal Canadiens or the Detroit Red Wings taking their foot off the pedal. The Bolts have a one-point lead over each of them, but the Red Wings have a game in hand on Tampa Bay and the Canadiens hold three games in hand. Add the growing pressure from the hot fourth-place Bruins, and the Lightning still need to rack up points despite their first place positioning.
The Lightning have been helping their own cause, winning four of their last five including a decisive 5-1 decision over Detroit on Thursday night.
The top-scoring team in the NHL, the Lightning offense has been paced by Steven Stamkos and Tyler Johnson. Both were voted to the All-Star Game, but Johnson was unable to play due to injury. Despite Johnson’s terrific point-per-game sophomore campaign, this is still Stamkos’ team.
It was a whirlwind season for Stamkos a year ago, playing only 37 games due to a broken leg but still amassing 25 goals and 40 points. It was also the year that the best player in franchise history, Martin St. Louis, departed via trade and Stamkos became the undisputed face of the franchise.
“It’s been a whirlwind for Lightning fans over the last couple of years to have Vinny (Lecavalier) and Marty come and go, and to have all these young guys,” said Stamkos at All-Star Media Day, praising ownership and the job of GM Steve Yzerman. “It’s been a kind of reboot for our team and it’s happened fast. We’re still young in the process of becoming an elite team, but we feel like we’re there right now.” Stamkos ranks fourth in the NHL with 27 goals.
Surrounded by Ondrej Palat, Nikita Kucherov, Valtteri Filppula and Ryan Callahan, and with Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman, and Jason Garrison on the blue line, there is no shortage of offense anywhere on this Tampa team.
The Jackets and Lightning met for the second time this season on Dec. 6 in Tampa, a 3-1 Jackets win that was easily one of their best efforts of the season. The Jackets jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first period. Boone Jenner opened the scoring with a quick wrist shot from the top of the left circle, a shot that goaltender Ben Bishop either didn’t see or wasn’t ready for, as he hardly moved when the puck whizzed past his glove. Bishop’s troubles continued later in the first when David Savard’s sharp-angled wrister trickled through him and trickled over the line.
The Lightning certainly applied pressure on Sergei Bobrovsky, but he made 33 saves in the game and the Jackets defense cleared away second chance opportunities. The Jackets were opportunistic themselves, scoring three goals on 20 shots and burning the Lightning on a 2-on-1 Jack Skille goal to put the game out of reach. Palat’s goal with 1:13 remaining spoiled the shutout bid for Bobrovsky.
The Blue Jackets welcome Ryan Murray back to the lineup on Saturday night. Murray was activated from injured reserve on Friday afternoon and will play for the first time since Nov. 1 and has only dressed for four games this season. The Jackets are eager not just to have Murray back, but to have a healthy Murray back on the ice. The second-overall pick in 2012 is the unquestioned cornerstone of the Jackets’ future on defense and has been an impact player already in his young career. The Blue Jackets know he can develop into one of the game’s best defenders if he can stay healthy. It appears his sophomore season is finally ready to truly begin Saturday night.
Cedric Paquette obviously got his rest during the All-Star Break. The third-line center has nine goals in the season, but three of them came in Tampa’s win over the Red Wings on Thursday. Paquette has four goals and five points total in the last three games, one-third of his point total for the entire season. Though Paquette’s offensive outburst is likely not a trend that will continue, he is playing with two linemates that can help spur his offense. Jonathan Drouin was in Columbus as a Young Star during All-Star Weekend and even though his goal-scoring potential hasn’t been realized yet, his 19 assists have made an impact. Alex Killorn has 11 goals, and five points in the last four games.
Commitment to Defense
The Blue Jackets have had two very different experiences playing the Lightning. In their first meeting, the Bolts jumped all over the Jackets early and led 4-0 by the end of the first period en route to a 7-4 win. In the second meeting, Tampa still had their opportunities with 34 shots, but the Jackets were much more committed to defense, clearing away second-chance opportunities and frustrating their opponent. Tampa Bay is a quick-transition, high-scoring team that the Blue jackets must slow down and frustrate. If they can minimize second-chance opportunities in front, they can frustrate the Lightning into mistakes. A calm, cool, and collected Tampa team is awfully hard to beat.