BRANDON —The Lightning’s past two postseasons ended in two very different extremes, but the one constant was the Columbus Blue Jackets.
The teams have had some epic battles under the playoff spotlight, but are they enough to call Lightning-Blue Jackets a rivalry as they embark on life as foes in this year’s realigned Central Division?
“If there’s any kind of rivalry there, that’s for you guys to decide,” Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. “But we just know it’s going to be a tough game. … All I know is that they’re a tough opponent and I’ve always had a ton of respect for them, even before what happened a couple years ago and last year in the playoffs. We know they’re going to be well-coached and well-structured and not give us anything easy.”
The matchup already included former Lightning coach John Tortorella, who led Tampa Bay to its first Stanley Cup in 2004, on the opposing bench. The close games the teams played the past two postseasons added even more juice.
Following one of the best regular-season runs in NHL history, the Lightning were swept by the Blue Jackets in the first round of the playoffs two seasons ago. Tampa Bay earned redemption last season, beating Columbus in five games — propelled by a five-overtime win in Game 1 of the opening-round series — on their way to winning the Stanley Cup.
“It’s weird it’s a team that’s not (previously) in our division but we’ve had so many high-tension games with them,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “But there is a lot of familiarity between the two teams ... and anytime you play them, if you come away with two points you’re definitely going to earn it.”
Thursday, the Lightning will play the first of eight games against the Blue Jackets this season, starting their first road trip with a two-game series at Nationwide Arena.
Prior to the 2018-19 playoffs, the Lightning had won six straight over the Blue Jackets. Tampa Bay’s .672 points percentage all-time against Columbus is its second-highest against any opponent.
But being on the wrong end of a first-round sweep was a gut check to the Lightning, and that alone made the Blue Jackets stand out in their minds.
“I think our feeling probably towards the Columbus Blue Jackets is a little different since our disastrous playoff in 2019, I’ll tell you that,” Cooper said. ”It’s funny, like, we’ve had some success against them in the regular season and we all know how that played out in 2019.
“The one thing is their core group has pretty much stayed the same and so is ours, so we really have a good feeling for each other. I think there’s a major respect value on our part. Not that we disrespected them back in 2019; that wasn’t it at all. But we are well aware of the damage that team can do and how hard it was to beat them in the playoffs.”
Getting swept in 2019 showed the Lightning they couldn’t rely simply on speed and skill in the postseason, that they had to develop an edge, add grittiness to their game to persevere against hard-nosed teams like Columbus.
So, while the Lightning don’t necessarily describe the Blue Jackets as a rival, they know any win against them will be well-earned.
“I know they’re a good team,” said Lightning center Brayden Point, who scored the winning goal in the fifth overtime of Game 1 of last season’s playoff opener. “I know they play us extremely hard. They’re tough to beat. And I think we have good games against them. As far as rivalries go, I don’t really know. But I know they’re a heck of a team, and they’re good games.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com Follow @EddieInTheYard.
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