It’s hard to forget the trio that wreaked havoc on the Lightning in last season’s playoffs.
Goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky stymied Tampa Bay’s top scorers, while forwards Artemi Panarin and Matt Duchene provided goals and grit as eighth-seeded Columbus swept the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Lightning in the first round.
But shortly after the free-agency signing period opened on July 1, 2019, all three players left the Blue Jackets for greener pastures.
Or so they thought.
The stars who thought they’d shine brighter elsewhere are now watching from home as the team they left behind resumes its pursuit of the Stanley Cup, facing the Lightning in a first-round series beginning Tuesday.
“When you look at (the Blue Jackets), they’re a pretty different team,” Lightning forward Alex Killorn said.
Panarin signed a seven-year deal with the Rangers, who were swept by the Hurricanes in the qualifying round. Bobrovsky inked a seven-year contract with the Panthers, who were eliminated by the Islanders. The Predators, with whom Duchene signed for seven years, were knocked out by the Coyotes.
“We were all nervous as the season started when we had some departures,” Columbus coach John Tortorella said.
They had good reason to be nervous, as the Blue Jackets started the season with two four-game losing streaks before the end of November.
Still, the core group that pulled off possibly the biggest upset in NHL postseason history — Seth Jones, Josh Anderson, Cam Atkinson, Zach Werenski, Nick Foligno, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Joonas Korpisalo and Oliver Bjorkstrand — stayed with Tortorella, and the team eventually regained its footing.
But first, there were injuries to overcome.
Anderson underwent surgery on his left shoulder in December. He missed the final 38 games of the regular season but returned in time for the qualifying series against Toronto. Atkinson suffered two lower-body injury stints, missing 33 games between December and February.
Jones fractured an ankle in mid-February. He opted for surgery and missed 14 games, the Blue Jackets going 3-5-6 in his absence. He recovered in time for the opener against Toronto.
Korpisalo, the Blue Jackets’ top goaltender, missed 24 games after undergoing knee surgery at the end of 2019. Rookie Elvis Merzlikins kept the team afloat until Korpisalo’s late February return, going 12-5-4 with five shutouts over eight games.
But just as Korpisalo returned to play, Merzlikins sustained a concussion, missing five games.
Columbus was able to overcome a league-leading 419 man-games lost to injury to put together two five-game winning streaks and find its way back to the postseason.
Goaltending and the defense played large roles. The Blue Jackets finished the regular season tied for third in the league in goals-against per game at 2.61.
Meanwhile, Werenski’s career-high 20 goals and 21 assists helped the team overcome the absence of Jones, his partner on the blue line.
Jones averaged 25:17 on ice this season, while Werenski racked up 23:59. Lightning coach Jon Cooper understands the threat those two players can pose back together at full health.
“You look at the two guys that are playing 30 minutes of ice in the back end,” Cooper said, “(I’m) hard-pressed to say there’s a better tandem in the league.”
The pairing of Jones-Werenski looms even bigger for the Lightning if Norris Trophy finalist Victor Hedman and/or defenseman Jan Rutta cannot play.
Though the Blue Jackets lost three of their stars from last season, Cooper cautioned against underestimating their talent.
“If we’re saying blue-collared means a hard-working team, they are, but they don’t have blue-collar talent, they have blue-chip talent,” Cooper said.
“(The Blue Jackets) play a style they choose to play. It may not fill the net every single night, but they get enough to win. And in this league, if you can get yourself three (goals), you have a pretty darn good chance of winning the game. And they play to that theory, and they play a system they’re good at.”