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Coaches Room

Blue Jackets sweep of Lightning first step on deep playoff run

Murphy says physical, aggressive approach will carry Columbus past second round

by Gord Murphy / Special to

The Coaches Room is a regular feature throughout the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs by one of four former NHL coaches and assistants who will turn their critical gaze to the game and explain it through the lens of a teacher. Gord Murphy, David Marcoux, Paul MacLean and Don Nachbaur will take turns providing insight.

In this edition, Murphy, a former assistant with the Columbus Blue Jackets, Florida Panthers and Philadelphia Flyers, breaks down how the Blue Jackets swept the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round.

When you have the top team in the conference against the second wild card there is a 30-point difference between them, the underdog needs something to help it steal a playoff series. It could be goaltending, the power play, injuries to the opponent or a hot scorer.

In the case of the Columbus Blue Jackets and Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference First Round, it was all of the above in favor of Columbus.

The Blue Jackets dominated in special teams, in 5-on-5 play, in territorial play, in physicality and in net. There wasn't an area you could say that the Lightning had in control or had an edge.

When the Blue Jackets are playing like that, their opponent doesn't matter, which is why it shouldn't matter to them if they face the Boston Bruins or the Toronto Maple Leafs in the second round.

In fact, I think the Blue Jackets' toughest matchup would be against the Washington Capitals, but that can't happen until the Eastern Conference Final if it happens at all. The Capitals can blend physicality, aggression, in-your-face pressure, heaviness in one-on-one battles and skill the way the Blue Jackets can.

The big question for me going into the first round was would the Blue Jackets be able to keep that blend of everything mentioned above for an entire series and do it well enough to catch up to the Lightning and skate with them.

They were able to do that from the second period of Game 1 on and that was the difference in the series, the Blue Jackets playing with that physicality, that heaviness and aggressiveness.

Columbus forwards Nick Foligno, Josh Anderson and Boone Jenner led the way, setting the tone that led to the comeback 4-3 win in Game 1. It carried them through the next three games.

Video: Foligno on Lightning, advancing to Second Round

The Blue Jackets gave up very few odd-man rushes. I can't remember barely any after the first period of Game 1. For a team like the Lightning that thrives off that, the way they skate, support and get players up in the rush, I thought Columbus did an outstanding job tactically to stop them.

The Blue Jackets didn't sit back. They had an aggressive 1-2-2 forecheck but their ability to get back above pucks, to keep their third forward high, it was great.

They didn't have their defensemen pinching as much either. I thought their defense received the rush instead of attacking it, but they had forwards back and their five-man gap and the way they clogged up the neutral zone and had numbers back just seemed to frustrate the Lightning.

Tampa Bay couldn't seem to come up with a solution to get through it or get the puck in the offensive zone. At times it felt like the Blue Jackets had an extra skater on the ice, which is something we used to say all the time about the Lightning when playing them.

"Where can we move the puck? They're on top of us. Do they have an extra guy?"

It was like Columbus was able to flip it around and do that to Tampa Bay, and you could really see it as the series wore on and it wore on the Lightning.

They were starting to try those long cross-ice passes through the neutral zone. When teams are doing that you can tell that they're having a tough time penetrating and getting in the offensive zone. They also don't want to dump the puck because they know that's not really their game.

The good thing for the Blue Jackets is that style of play is sustainable, especially with a nice chunk of time to rest and recover. They can't rely on their power play being 50 percent against anyone like it was in this series (5-for-10), but they can rely on their structure, will and determination.

Oftentimes, you can watch a team in the regular season and they have their ups and downs, but you're thinking, 'I don't want to play that team in the playoffs because in a seven-game series, it's a war and you know you're going to have some attrition, some guys banged up'. You begin to wonder, 'I don't know if my team can handle playing against a team like that, where it's a real man's game, in your face, no easy ice, no ice available, you have to earn everything.'

That's the way the Blue Jackets play, especially at home. They're one of probably four teams, along with the Winnipeg Jets, Nashville Predators and Vegas Golden Knights, I think have a real home-ice advantage with the way they play and the way the fans feed into that game.

They play hard and their building gets going. It's a factor. It was in Games 3 and 4, when the Blue Jackets' continued to show their hunger to win, determination to doing things they have to do to have success. It's evident.

They're a very dangerous opponent. They don't have a weakness.

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