The Tampa Bay Lightning (30-14-2) have fallen to third place in the Central Division, three points behind the Florida Panthers and Carolina Hurricanes. As the defending Stanley Cup Champions, they’ll look to claw closer to the top with a win over the Columbus Blue Jackets (15-24-9) Thursday night in Tampa.
The Blue Jackets and Lightning have split the season series, with each club winning three games. Each Columbus win had a two-goal or greater margin of victory, while two of Tampa Bay’s were one-goal games.
Nevertheless, the Lightning are an overwhelming favorite Thursday night. Oddsmakers list the Lightning at -275, while the Blue Jackets check-in at +235. Puck drop is at 7:00 P.M. Eastern.
Columbus Blue Jackets: Stop the Bleeding
The Blue Jackets are riding a seven-game losing streak, their longest of the season. Columbus’ last win came on April 6. However, that was a 4-2 win over the Lightning. As ugly as this season has been for the Blue Jackets, they’ve always played well against Tampa Bay.
Columbus scores the fourth-fewest goals per game (2.40) and allows the fifth-most (3.33). Yet against Tampa Bay, the Blue Jackets have scored three goals or more four times. They’ve also allowed three goals or fewer five times.
Allowing 32 shots per game isn’t a recipe for success, but the Blue Jackets give their goaltenders plenty of opportunities to see pucks and get into a rhythm. At the same time, Columbus ranks eighth in the league in blocked shots per 60 minutes. It is nearly impossible to generate offense when playing that long on their own end.
Elvis Merzlikins is the projected starter. He has a 6-11-2 record, a 2.98 GAA, a .910 save percentage, and a shutout. In his career against Tampa Bay, Merzlikins is 2-2-1, has a stingy 2.27 GAA, and a .930 save percentage.
Missing several key pieces due to injury, the Blue Jackets are playing at noticeably less than full strength. Despite hopes, he would return from surgery, Gustav Nyquist has been shut down for the season. Zach Werenski is done for the year as well after undergoing sports hernia surgery. Emil Bemstrom is out until at least next week.
Tampa Bay Lightning – Figure it Out!
The defending champs are 6-8-0 in their last 14 games, alternating wins and losses over their last six games. Coming off a 4-1 loss to Carolina on Tuesday, the Bolts should be well-motivated.
Tampa Bay has been the exact opposite of Columbus. The Lightning score the fifth-most goals per game (3.30) while allowing the eight-fewest (2.61). In its last five games, Tampa Bay has allowed 20 goals, which is perhaps a sign of fatigue.
Two of the Lightning’s biggest stars will be out of the lineup. Steven Stamkos is on injured reserve while dealing with a lower-body injury. Stamkos has not been skating for the last week while recovering. Nikita Kucherov is close to a return from offseason hip surgery, but he may still need a few more weeks to get ready.
Andrei Vasilevskiy is the projected starter. In 2021, he’s got a 27-8-1 record, a 2.08 GAA, a .930 save percentage, and four shutouts. He leads the league in wins, ranks second in save percentage, and fourth in GAA among goaltenders with at least 10 starts.
Vasilevskiy has played well against Columbus, too. In 13 regular-season contests against the Blue Jackets, he has nine wins and three shutouts.
On to the Pick
Tampa Bay certainly needs the win more than Columbus. The Lightning are battling for playoff positions while the Blue Jackets are looking forward to the draft lottery. Still, Columbus always plays Tampa Bay tough, and Thursday’s game should be no exception.
While Tampa Bay should win, the betting value isn’t there on the moneyline at -275. The smart play is to take Columbus +1.5 goals at -110, keeping it close as they often do against the Lightning.
The Pick: Columbus Blue Jackets +1.5 goals (-110)