TAMPA — Which Blue Jackets team will the Lightning face when they meet their old postseason nemesis this week at Amalie Arena?
Will they see the team that played toe-to-toe with Central Division heavyweight Carolina, or the one that seemingly sleep-walked through two lopsided losses to lowly Detroit over the weekend?
If there’s one team the Lightning know not to sleep on, it’s Columbus. We won’t revisit the events of those seven days in April 2019, but Tampa Bay knows all too well the Blue Jackets have the ability to ruin another team’s season.
These days, as it prepares to play in Tampa Tuesday and Thursday, Columbus is trying to prevent its own ruin.
The Blue Jackets (13-15-8) are still very much in the playoff hunt, just three points out of the fourth and final playoff spot in the Central Division. But their place in the standings underlines how poorly they’ve played. No team in the division has allowed more goals (117), and the Blue Jackets’ minus-26 is better than only the last-place Red Wings.
Rock bottom seemed to arrive this weekend, when Columbus lost two games to Detroit by a 7-2 margin, allowing Red Wings goalie Calvin Pickard his first wins since November 2018. On Detroit’s first goal Sunday, Red Wings forward Evgeny Svechnikov was the only Detroit player in the offensive zone coming onto the ice on a line change, and he shot through four Columbus defenders and past goaltender Elvis Merzlikins.
“We played awful,” Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella said after the 4-1 loss. “I’m not going to sit here and criticize our group. We didn’t play well. I’m not going to do any good by going up and down and saying what went wrong. A ton went wrong.”
That was supposed to be the easy part of a 12-game stretch for Columbus from March 18-April 8 . The other 10 games are against the division’s top teams — Carolina, Florida and Tampa Bay.
This season has been a tumultuous one for the Blue Jackets. It began with reports of top scorer Pierre-Luc Dubois wanting out of Columbus shortly after signing a two-year, $10 million extension. Dubois’ relationship with Tortorella seemed to deteriorate after the former Lightning head coach dressed him down on the bench during a qualifying-round game against the Maple Leafs in August in Toronto.
The Blue Jackets traded Dubois to Winnipeg, where he’s now beginning to find his footing with six points in his last seven games, for forwards Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic. Laine, whose strength is finding space for his rocket shot, has struggled to fit in with the Blue Jackets, who want him to play more of a power-forward game. He has just one goal in his last 16 games.
And then there’s Tortorella, who we know can be abrasive when things don’t go well. He’s received the vocal support of general manager Jarmo Kekäläinen, but with his team spiraling, there’s legitimate wonder whether his job in Columbus is on the line.
Detroit’s sweep of Columbus comes after the Blue Jackets seemed to be turning things around. They entered the series with points in six of their last seven games, including three of four against the Hurricanes.
“Maybe did we take these guys lightly?” Roslovic said of the Red Wings. “I don’t know if that was the case, but it sure as heck seemed like it. So maybe going against Tampa and going against Florida, we’ll be able to ramp our game back up.”
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