Zach Werenski was initially uncertain when asked if his Columbus Blue Jackets view the Tampa Bay Lightning as a rival.
“I don’t really know what defines a rival,” the defenseman said. “The word rival, for me growing up, it was the Red Wings vs. Avalanche, the brawls and whatnot. We haven’t had that yet.”
But as Werenski kept talking, he eventually gained clarity on why the Blue Jackets and Lightning can and should be seen as rivals going into their game at Columbus on Thursday (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, FS-O, NHL.TV), the first of eight between them that’s big enough to warrant national television exposure in the United States.
The Lightning and Blue Jackets, each in the Discover Central Division this season, will play again at Nationwide Arena on Saturday.
“I think rivalries are made in the playoffs,” Werenski said. “You can have those heated games during the regular season and you can go at it back and forth with teams, but when it gets to the real stuff, the stuff that really counts, which is the playoffs, that’s where rivalries are born. I think this is definitely trending that way toward it being a good rivalry.”
Columbus and Tampa Bay have played each other in the Stanley Cup Playoffs the past two seasons and have split those series.
In 2018-19, the Blue Jackets ruined the Lightning’s historic 62-win season by sweeping them in the Eastern Conference First Round. It was the first time a Presidents’ Trophy team with the best record in the NHL was swept in the first round.
Last season, the Lightning won the first-round series in five games, including a five-overtime Game 1, to start their run to the Stanley Cup. Four of the five games were decided by one goal, including Game 5 (5-4 in overtime).
“Our feeling toward the Columbus Blue Jackets is a little different since our disastrous playoff in 2019, I’ll tell you that,” Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said. “It’s funny, 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 has ours, so we really have a good feeling for each other. I think there is 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.”
Werenski also had respect on his mind when discussing the Lightning.
“I have a lot of respect for how they handle themselves, how they play the game and how hard they work for how skilled they are,” he said. “How we play the game and how hard we need to play to win hockey games, we’re starting to gain a level of respect around the League.”
It started in 2019 against the Lightning. The playoff sweep sent shockwaves around the NHL, earning the Blue Jackets points for their skill as much as for their reputation as one of the hardest teams to defeat under coach John Tortorella.
“We know they’re going to be well-coached and well-structured and not give us anything easy,” Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. “If there is any kind of rivalry there, that’s for you guys to decide, but we just know it’s going to be a tough game.”
The Lightning had a reputation as one of the most skilled teams in the NHL, but how they responded to being swept, a tone they set in Game 1 last season (3-2 playing 150:27), earned them respect for their ability to win any type of way.
“We can’t respect them too much, we have to go out there and try to win,” Werenski said. “They’re the team everyone wants to beat.”
Werenski said Columbus’ underrated skill and Tampa Bay’s previously overlooked grind will create some tight games in the next three days.
“What we do well kind of goes against what they do well, and whenever we play against them it always seems to be close, especially in the playoffs,” Werenski said. “Our system versus their system usually creates a one-goal game and it makes for intense games.”
Columbus usually plays in the Metropolitan Division, and Tampa Bay competes in the Atlantic Division. But playoff meetings can fuel rivalries that spill into the regular season.
The Blue Jackets and Lightning are rivals.
“These have been some heated games, some heated battles,” Werenski said. “That feeling that it’s different than regular-season hockey, when it feels like something more, but it’s during the regular season, that’s what these games feel like.”