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New and improved Columbus team awaits Lightning

The Blue Jackets made several key acquisitions at the trade deadline to retool their lineup

by Bryan Burns / TampaBayLightning.com

The Tampa Bay Lightning swept the Columbus Blue Jackets during the 2018-19 regular season, winning all three games by a combined 17-3.

Sprinkled amongst those three victories was an 8-2 thrashing in the third regular season game of the season, the eight goals tied for the most the Lightning scored in a season, and a 4-0 shutout behind a 31-save effort from Andrei Vasilevskiy on January 8.

The Lightning, in fact, have swept the regular season series from the Blue Jackets each of the last two seasons and own a six-game win streak coming into their First Round playoff matchup against the Blue Jackets to open the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

That regular season domination will have no bearing on the outcome, however, once the puck hits the ice for Game 1 Wednesday say Lightning players and coaches alike.

Video: Cooper on facing the Blue Jackets

"Just the regular season and playoffs, it's completely different," said forward Tyler Johnson, who matched his career high for regular season goals after netting No. 29 in the regular season finale at Boston. "I don't think you can ever go into a series and say, 'Oh, we did this in the regular season.' It just doesn't matter quite frankly."

Factor in the moves Columbus made at the February 25 trade deadline to improve, and the Lightning will be seeing a much different Blue Jackets team in this First Round series than they did during the regular season. Columbus bolstered its scoring punch by adding forwards Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel. Duchene has scored 31 goals this season between Ottawa and Columbus, a mark that ranks second on the Blue Jackets this season. Dzingel has chipped in four goals and eight assists (the same totals as Duchene) in his 21 games with Columbus. Dzingel gives the Blue Jackets another 50-point scorer, one of five on their roster.

Columbus also added a depth defenseman in Adam McQuade, who missed the final four games of the regular season with an upper-body injury, and brought in Keith Kinkaid from New Jersey to backup starting goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. The Lightning have plenty of familiarity with Kinkaid having faced the 29-year-old netminder in last year's First Round series against the Devils.

"Even if you look past all the moves they made at the deadline, we haven't played them since then," Tampa Bay captain Steven Stamkos said. "But 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."

Of course, maybe the Blue Jackets' most important move (or non-move) was holding onto Bobrovsky, a perennial Vezina candidate in goal, and superstar Artemi Panarin. Both are unrestricted free agents following the season, and there was speculation Columbus could deal one or both at the deadline to recoup something from their potential departure rather than risk losing both in the offseason with no return.

Make no mistake: The Columbus team the Lightning last saw on February 18 will be decidedly different than the one they're facing a couple months later.

Video: Stamkos on ECQF Matchup with CBJ

"We haven't played them in quite some time, and they've got so many more players now," Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. "Are they a more talented group? There's no question. They've added some really good players to their group. The one thing I do know is they're playing probably their best hockey of the year in this latter part of the season. You kind of look at the games that really, really meant something, you circle the Montreal game where both those teams are vying for a playoff spot late in the year and they handled that game pretty well. You get into the Ranger game that really close to clinching a playoff spot and they handled that game well, and so they've really kind of caught their stride at the right time. To answer your question, a talented group now with the additions they made at the deadline, and now it looks like they've all meshed together well."

Columbus won seven of its last eight games to make it into the postseason as the last team in the Eastern Conference. In a pivotal game March 28 versus Montreal -- the team the Blue Jackets beat out for the final playoff spot -- Columbus rolled to a 6-2 victory. The Blue Jackets punched their playoff ticket in the next-to-last day of the regular season following a 3-2 shootout win over the Rangers in New York.

The fact the Blue Jackets have been playing with a do-or-die mentality over, in reality, the last month of the season should have them at their peak for the First Round matchup against the Presidents' Trophy-winning Lightning.
Tampa Bay is expecting a dog fight in its opening round playoff series.

"They have a couple of new players, but they still have the same coach," said Lightning forward Alex Killorn, referring to former Lightning and current Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella. "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."

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