It would be understandable to look at a first-round playoff series against the Tampa Bay Lightning as an insurmountable challenge. After all, the Lightning easily led the NHL with 128 points and a plus-103 mark in goal differential. Those numbers dwarf the credentials of the Blue Jackets, who open Game 1 against the Lightning Wednesday night at Amalie Arena.
Columbus needed a late-season surge to grab the final playoff slot in the East with 98 points and a plus-26 goal differential. Tampa Bay has beaten Columbus in each of the past six meetings, sweeping three games this year by a combined 17-3 margin. But the Lightning enter this best-of-seven series wary of the pressure they carry across their shoulder pads and fully aware that regular-season success in the NHL doesn't always translate to the playoffs.
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"Even if you look past all the moves they made at the deadline, we haven't played them since then," says Tampa Bay captain Steven Stamkos. "I don't think the regular season has any effect on when you play in the playoffs. I've been on positions where you've dominated a team during the year and you lose to them in the playoffs and you have trouble with a team in the regular season and you have no problem in the playoffs. I've been on both ends. So, it's a new year." The Lightning figure to be buoyed by the return of defenseman Victor Hedman, the reigning Norris Trophy winner who missed the final four games with an upper-body injury. Gritty winger Ryan Callahan is also back on the ice but the status of defenseman Anton Stralman for Game 1 remains uncertain.
If the Blue Jackets hope to spring a major upset, they will rely on a confident tone supplied by coach John Tortorella, who guided the 2003-04 Lightning to the Stanley Cup. "Torts is the man,'' says Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper. "I haven't spent a ton of time with him, but the time I have spent with him I really enjoy. He's got a big heart and what I love about Torts is he's passionate as hell. He gives you everything he has. He's an extremely important part of this organization. It's tough we're going against him, but exciting all the same.''
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Lightning fans are excited about a league-leading power play that played a pivotal role during a dominating regular season. Tampa Bay converted at a 28.2 percent clip with a manpower advantage, not far off the all-time NHL record (31.9) set by the 1977-78 Canadiens. The Blue Jackets must find a balance between aggression and discipline because a trip to the penalty box could prove decisive. Lightning MVP candidate Nikita Kucherov topped all skaters with 48 power-play points, followed by 40 from Stamkos. Brayden Point led the league with 20-power play goals while Cam Atkinson topped Columbus with 8. NHL history is littered with first-round playoff surprises and Tortorella is a master psychologist who will keep the Blue Jackets hungry and grounded.
"They have a couple of new players, but they still have the same coach," says Lightning forward Alex Killorn. "I think they still have a lot of the same values. They're a heavy team. They play a certain way. They have some guys that they acquired at the deadline that kind of add to their offensive abilities. We'll do a pre-scout on that. Nothing's really going to change with that. We know if we play our game, we should be okay."