While revenge surely is on the minds of the Tampa Bay Lightning, the status of defenseman Victor Hedman is the bigger issue heading into Game 1 of their Eastern Conference first-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday afternoon in Toronto.
Hedman sustained a lower-body injury during the first period of Tampa Bay’s 4-1 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday.
There isn’t an official word on the severity of Hedman’s injury, however Lightning coach Jon Cooper said “when your perennial Norris Trophy finalist is out, that creates a hole.
“We’ve dealt with injuries before … and it’s a little frustrating because it feels like we’re going in the right direction and (then) lose some of the star power we have.”
Beyond Hedman, captain Steven Stamkos (lower body) remains a question mark heading into the first round. Stamkos had been intermittently practicing with the team but didn’t play during the three round-robin games.
For the Lightning, there are some ominous parallels to their first-round sweep at the hands of Columbus last season. Hedman missed the final two games of that series with an injury, and was one of several banged-up Tampa Bay players caught off-guard by a big effort from the underdog Blue Jackets.
The Lightning rolled into the 2018-19 Stanley Cup playoffs on the strength of 128 points and 62 wins before getting bounced by Columbus. It was the first time a Presidents’ Trophy winner had been swept in the first round, and it was the Blue Jackets’ first playoff series win in their franchise history.
Columbus now has a second postseason series win following the aftermath of their qualifying-round victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Jackets recorded a 3-0 win in the deciding Game 5 on Sunday, with Joonas Korpisalo posting a 33-save shutout.
Just as Sergei Bobrovsky was a difference-maker for the Blue Jackets against the Lightning last year, Columbus is riding more hot goaltending in Korpisalo and backup Elvis Merzlikins. The two netminders combined for a 2.00 goals-against average and .947 save percentage in the five games against the Maple Leafs.
“Every night they’re in the net we feel confident in front of them,” defenseman Zach Werenski said. “As you can tell, both goalies that played this series were a huge reason why we’re here today and … still going on. It’s what we expect out of them and I think it’s what they expect from themselves.”
Korpisalo is the probable starter for Game 1. Merzlikins wasn’t available for the last game against Toronto, and rookie Matiss Kivlenieks served as Korpisalo’s backup.
Reigning Vezina Trophy recipient Andrei Vasilevskiy started all three of the Lightning’s round-robin games, posting a 2.29 GAA and .921 save percentage.
Cam Atkinson led the Blue Jackets with five points (two goals, three assists) in the first round.
The Lightning went 2-1-0 in the round-robin games to secure the Eastern Conference’s second seed. On the neutral-site ice in Toronto, the Lightning will be the designated home team for the series’ first two games and (if necessary) for Games 5 and 7.
Tampa Bay finished 11 points ahead of the Blue Jackets during the regular season. The two clubs only met one time prior the league shutdown, with the Lightning skating away with a 2-1 overtime victory in Columbus on Feb. 10.
–Field Level Media