Blue Jackets and Lightning are paving an easier road for Bruins


The biggest "yeah, but" of a really good Bruins season just might disappear. 

I say "just might" because even though I'm as stunned as everybody else that the Lightning are on the verge of being swept in the first round, I still give them roughly a 50-50 shot at coming back and eliminating the Blue Jackets.  

At any rate, this is good for the Bruins. They either won't have to play the Lightning in the second round or they'll have to play a Lightning team that escaped a seven-game series by the skin of its teeth. (No, I'm still not considering the third option where the freaking Maple Leafs play in the second round.) 

Tampa has had a nightmare of a first round. It began with a blown three-goal lead in Game 1 and most recently saw the Lightning's best forward suspended and their best defenseman injured for a Game 3 they dropped for their first three-game losing streak of the season. 

Mocking the Presidents' Trophy is foolish; roughly 25 percent of its winners have gone on to win the Cup, which is really not bad considering the variance of different seeds going all the way. Still, there is something to be said for the Lightning's problem-free regular season doing them no favors right now. 

Nobody has any idea what kind of mental makeup permeates Jon Cooper's room. Being a historically good team, the 62-win Bolts really never played an important game this season, let alone a must-win. They've got to be just as shocked by their three-game hole as the rest of us. We don't have to fix it, though. They do, and they're hardly road-tested for such an unexpected task. 

Say they can't pull it off. The Bruins will not only have an easier opponent than expected, they'll have home ice.

But the Blue Jackets, whom the B's beat in two of three meetings this season, are better than Toronto. The games will still get tougher from Round 1 to Round 2. Where the Leafs are speed, skill and nothing else, Columbus is well-rounded. They've got two studs on defense playing in front of a Vezina winner. They also added Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel up front after deciding to keep UFA-to-be Artemi Panarin at the trade deadline. 

They wouldn't sneak up on Boston the way they have with Tampa, however. The entire league is on notice now. Nobody was expected to beat Tampa. If anyone does, they won't be taken lightly by their next opponent. All things considered, Boston would rightfully be favored in that series. 

If Cooper's squad gets past Columbus, it will be because they got their act together. Tampa has scored two goals since the first intermission of Game 1. Brayden Point (92 regular-season points), Steven Stamkos (98) and Nikita Kucherov (128!) all have zero points in the series (Kucherov was suspended for Game 3). 

When healthy and right, Tampa is unstoppable. Since the start of the Blue Jackets' Game 1 comeback, however, they've stalled offensively. Furthermore, Victor Hedman is an injury question (he missed Game 3) and Andrei Vasilevskiy has been subpar in goal. 

Maybe Tampa won't look this shaky again the rest of the playoffs. The Kings were down three games to none in the opening round of the 2014 playoffs against the Sharks and still went on to win the Cup. And even if Tampa does come back to win four straight, it would feel more like an exhausting exercise in avoiding embarrassment than a confidence-building triumph.  

Right now Tampa is vulnerable, which isn't something anyone could say about them all season. Whatever happens, Bruins observers should adjust their second-round expectations from facing a buzzsaw to playing either a more tired Tampa team or a different team altogether.

That's a hell of a lot better than anyone could have anticipated.

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