Yesterday, we previewed the deadly forward group the No. 1 seed Tampa Bay Lightning feature, as well as Columbus’ dangerous bunch that can certainly pose a threat for opposing defenders and goaltenders.
Now we shift the focus to the defensive pairings. The Lightning got 207 points from their back-end this season, with Victor Hedman (54 points) and Ryan McDonagh (46) leading the way. Columbus, which received offensive production of their own from the defense (188 points) is, of course, boosted by All-Star Seth Jones, and we can expect to see a lot of him and his mates trying to slow down this powerful Lightning bunch.
Victor Hedman - Dan Girardi
Zach Werenski - Seth Jones
This is certainly a defensive pairing to watch out for, as Seth Jones will be the main man for Columbus on the back-end, and even offensively, as he and Zach Werenski could opt to join the rush often. And looking to be aggressive against the best team in the league, that could be something to anticipate. What would you have to lose?
Meanwhile, the Lightning feature reigning Norris Trophy winner Victor Hedman, who will return in time for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup playoffs after missing the last few games to close out the regular season due to an upper-body injury. The depth is stacked for Tampa Bay, and having a guy like Hedman in the lineup just adds to the star power the Bolts possess. Hedman was the leading point-man on the blue line in the regular season, and in 82 career playoff games, has another 48 points (seven goals, 41 assists). Girardi — more on him — is another experienced playoff veteran that was second on the Lightning with 108 shot blocks. John Tortorella’s favorite.
Ryan McDonagh - Erik Cernak
Markus Nutivaara - David Savard
We know the defense basically starts and ends with Jones, but there is some depth that goes beyond which will be crucial for the Blue Jackets to have a chance in these games. Guys like Markus Nutivaara and David Savard will have to step up in their spots — Savard has had a scorers touch of late. More on him later.
Ryan McDonagh, the other ex-Ranger, is lined up with rookie Erik Cernak, who appeared in 58 games this season, and scored 16 points (five goals, 11 assists). Could be an interesting challenge for the young 21-year-old rookie as he gets ready to go up against Cam Atkinson, Matt Duchene, Artemi Panarin, and the rest.
Mikhail Sergachev - Jan Rutta
Dean Kukan - Scott Harrington
Before the season, I’m not sure anyone would guess that Dean Kukan and Scott Harrington would matchup on the third pairing to start a Stanley Cup playoff series. But that is where the Blue Jackets find themselves with some injuries that have taken a bite out of the blue line. Harrington had a nice productive season, putting up 17 points in 73 games this season, both totals a career-high.
Mikhail Sergachev, just 20-years-old, has put up big numbers for the Lighting with 57 points in two seasons. In 75 games this year, Sergachev had 32 points (six goals, 26 assists) and is just yet another d-man for the Lightning to score at least 30 points on the season. Jan Rutta has a handful of NHL games under his belt (94 Chi/TB) and zero career playoff games.
While injuries can creep or flare up — always a possibility — and unless matchups play out differently as the series progresses, you may see Anton Stralman, who you’ll remember from his days in Columbus (2009-11) and he’s the third ex-Ranger for the Tampa defense.
Unlikely to play as of this writing: Adam McQuaid, Ryan Murray
Star Player Comparison
Flip a coin. With stars like Victor Hedman or Ryan McDonagh, any team going up against these two on the back-end for the Bolts will have their hands full. On the offensive-side of play, McDonagh is 16th among defensemen with a career high 46 points, and tied for 17th with 37 assists, also a personal best. He ranked first on the Bolts with 161 shot blocks. Hedman, all 6’6” of him, is a menace. With his 54 points (12 goals, 42 assists) Hedman ranked 11th among defenseman, 11th in assists, and 21st in goals.
On the other side, your shot-block leader with 133, Seth Jones (46 points), nine goals, 37 assists, easily comes to mind, helping to stabilize the Blue Jackets’ blue line almost instantly upon his arrival to Columbus in 2016. At just 24-years-old, and already in his seventh NHL season, Jones is among the leadership group that the team takes their cue from. Jones typically represents the average ice-time leaders (25:49), averages nearly 30 shifts per game (29.5), and skates an average shift length of 1:11 for John Tortorella on a nightly basis.
You can be sure that will continue for as long as Columbus is playing this spring.
Jones’ 37 assists tied McDonagh, both scored nine goals, and while McDonagh played all 82 games, Jones was right behind him (75), after missing the season following a knee injury sustained in pre-season — which he came back from much sooner than initially expected.
Teams that thrive in the Stanley Cup playoffs always get key contributions from those you may least suspect. Or even the ones you know are good, but elevate their game to a level that makes heroes and transcends a series.
For Columbus, could a guy like David Savard have something to say about things? Offensively, he’s been finding the net of late with 10 points, including four goals in March. He assisted twice each in games against the Rangers and Senators to close out the season.
For Tampa Bay, the names are endless as far as those that can make an impact. Dan Girardi represents one of the many ex-Rangers in this series, and has plenty of playoff experience from his days under John Tortorella, and with the Lightning; a total of 139 career playoff games and 36 points (eight goals, 28 assists) in the postseason.
While it seems unlikely McQuaid (head) will be able to go for the Blue Jackets in this series as he continues to recover from a high hit by Andrew Shaw, and though he is not one of the sexier names you think of, he is the lone Blue Jacket that has a Stanley Cup ring (Bruins, 2011). McQuaid is the most experienced Blue Jacket on the roster in terms of career playoff games (68), and can bring veteran playoff knowledge to the dressing room, whether he’s on the ice or not. If he was available to suit up, McQuaid is a bruising type that wouldn’t net big minutes, but does represent a physical force (30 career penalty minutes) with 11 career points (three goals, eight assists).
And with the word quite mum on Ryan Murray for some time now, it was hard to ignore the presence he brought to the ice in a career-year before he went down. Again, I’ll tout colleague Ryan Real’s piece on Murray from last month — Ryan Murray Deserved Better.
Told that Ryan Murray's situation remains status quo for the start of the playoffs, out indefinitely with an upper-body injury.— Brian Hedger (@BrianHedger) April 7, 2019
Also told Adam McQuaid isn't showing signs of progress yet from his upper-body injury.
Murray has missed 24 games; McQuaid has missed five.#CBJ
All Statistics reflective of EV
Some parting stats for you
The Lightning surrendered, tied-for-the-seventh, fewest goals during the regular season (221) and per game (2.70); Columbus came in 11th in both categories (231 and 2.82). In terms of shots allowed per game, Columbus took the regular-season edge (t-6th, 29.5); Tampa (21st, 32.1).
So shoot the puck if you’re Columbus.
Tomorrow we will preview the goaltenders for this series before Game 1 gets underway starting Wednesday night!