NHL-best Lightning start over vs. Blue Jackets
The Tampa Bay Lightning rolled through the 2018-19 season on the way to a Presidents' Trophy-winning campaign, but the real work starts now.
The team begins a best-of-seven series in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs against the visiting Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday night at Amalie Arena.
Tampa Bay, which won the 2004 Stanley Cup over the Calgary Flames, has been a rock-solid fortress on home ice this season, sporting a 32-7-2 record.
The team's overall 62-16-4 record matched the NHL single-season record for victories, set by the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings, who fell in the conference finals to the eventual Stanley Cup-winning Colorado Avalanche in six games.
The Lightning enter the postseason with some incredible numbers.
Nikita Kucherov established a record for the most points ever scored by a Russian-born player. His 128-point total was one better than Alexander Mogilny's mark set in 1992-93.
Captain Steven Stamkos tallied 45 goals while Kucherov and Brayden Point each produced 41 to scale the 40-goal plateau, and goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy led the league in wins (39) and notched six shutouts.
However, that means little now, and only the Lightning's overall success against the Blue Jackets probably matters at all in the postseason -- Tampa Bay won all three meetings in overwhelming fashion, outscoring Columbus 17-3.
Norris Trophy-winning defenseman Victor Hedman was a full participant in Monday's practice after missing the past four games with an upper-body injury, but fellow rear guard Anton Stralman and right winger Ryan Callahan remain out.
"He looked good," coach Jon Cooper said of Hedman. "Just the mere fact to have him out there was nice. He hadn't been on the ice with the team in a while. It's looking encouraging."
The Blue Jackets (47-31-4) finished fifth in the Metropolitan Division, but their two-game winning streak on the final weekend put them two points ahead of the Montreal Canadiens for the second wild card spot and just one point out of the first position held by the Carolina Hurricanes.
While the Blue Jackets have had no success against Tampa Bay this season and have never won a postseason series in franchise history, they were 25-14-2 on the road this year.
They also possess a pair of difference-makers in left winger Artemi Panarin and goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, both of whom are unrestricted free agents and likely will be lost by the Blue Jackets on July 1.
Panarin scored a team-best 87 points (28 goals, 59 assists) and had eight game-winning markers in 79 games, and Bobrovsky, a two-time Vezina Trophy winner, authored a league-high nine shutouts and was second in wins (37) to Vasilevskiy.
The two Russian stars will need to be in top form if coach John Tortorella's group hopes to take down the NHL's juggernaut, but center Pierre-Luc Dubois feels the team is in a good spot as it enters its third consecutive playoff appearance.
"We've been playing really well this last stretch of games," Dubois said. "We won seven of eight to finish the season. We feel good about ourselves, and come playoffs, everything starts at zero."
--Field Level Media
Updated April 9, 2019