Yes, the Penguins are the defending Cup champions.
Yes, they have home ice advantage.
Yes, they are one of the most resilient teams in recent memory under Mike Sullivan.
But don’t count out the Columbus Blue Jackets.
The Blue Jackets are a damn good hockey team. They are coming off of the best regular season in franchise history, and they’re looking to cap it off with a deep postseason run. They finished this year’s campaign with an impressive 50-24-8 record, which amounts to a whopping 108 points. Only three shy of the Penguins 111.
Columbus has struggled recently, but it probably won’t mean much once the puck drops on Wednesday night. This isn’t just any old series for the Blue Jackets. It’s the most important series in franchise history against their biggest rival. They will come out absolutely flying and the Penguins have to be able to match their initial intensity at the start of game one. Regardless of what you think of the Penguins chances to win the series, this was absolutely the worst case scenario for the Penguins in terms of a round one matchup. The NHL’s vacuous playoff format pitted two teams together in the first round that would have both made it to round two if they played any other team.
This series is going to be nasty, it’s going to be tight, and it’s going to be a series from hell for both sides.
Let’s take a look at what makes Columbus such a dangerous opponent and how the Penguins can exploit their flaws.
Columbus is backstopped by the best goalie in the NHL this season. Sergei Bobrovsky put the team on his back for most of the season. The Russian net-minder posted the league leading mark in both goals against average (2.06) and save percentage (.931). The playoffs are a different animal, however and an experienced team like the Penguins might be able to rattle him with a few early goals in game one. I wouldn’t bet on it though, as Bobrovsky has consistently been the best goalie in the league all season.
The Jackets lineup is also littered with skill. Cam Atkinson, one of the shiftiest and most underrated players in the league will be looking to have a big series. He was the Jackets leading scorer and tallied 35 goals, 27 assists for 62 points. Alexander Wennberg, only 22 years old, was by far the best center for Columbus this season. He put up 59 points in 80 games, but it will be interesting to see how he performs in his first NHL playoff appearance. Unfortunately, Pittsburgh’s very own Brandon Saad will be suiting up for the opponent this round. Saad is a proven playoff performer from his time in Chicago and will certainly be trying to lead the way for the young Columbus squad. He racked up 24 goals, 29 assists for 53 points this season and the Penguins will have to contain him in order to be successful. Finally, the Jackets most important skater this season, rookie defenseman Zach Werenski. Werenski is an absolute stud on the blue line. At only 19, he is already the Jackets best defenseman. He is a legitimate Calder Trophy candidate, and he scored 11 goals, 36 assists for 47 points in 78 games. If the Jackets are going to win this series, Werenski will need to play his best hockey of the season.
Sure, the Jackets have some skill, but they’re completely overmatched by the Penguins in that department. Columbus will not win this series by being the more talented hockey team. Even without Kris Letang, the Jackets are not half as skilled as the Penguins. Columbus will have to rely on their physical, agitating style in order to beat the defending Cup champions.
It will be interesting to see how the Penguins respond to the Jackets style. Brandon Dubinsky and Scott Hartnell are two of the biggest villains in Pittsburgh and they both know what their job is for this series. They will finish every check they can and maybe even a few that aren’t close to being legal. They will make it a point to stir things up after every whistle and try to get the Penguins off of their game. They will surely go after Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin with every dirty trick they can get away with. The NHL’s archaic playoff officiating will allow for this nonsense to go on much more than it did in the regular season. No matter which team comes out of this series, they’re going to be battered to hell.
On the other hand, these aren’t Dan Bylsma’s Penguins who would lose their minds when they’re the victims of malicious play. Mike Sullivan’s motto of, “Just Play” is more relevant now than ever. The Penguins are more skilled, faster, smarter, and just plain better than the Blue Jackets. The Jackets will be amped though and it won’t be as simple as it seems. This is going to be a long, hard-fought series. I expect several games to be decided by one goal and the games that aren’t will be closer than the score shows.
The Penguins are a special group. They will come together and play for the injured Kris Letang. They won’t let the Jackets physical and irritating style get to them. Matt Murray will rise to the occasion and match Bobrovsky’s performances in net. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin will ride the confidence of last year’s success and dominate this series. Justin Schultz and the makeshift defense will come together and play better than anyone expects in big time situations.
The Penguins speed and skill will just be too much to handle for the young team from Ohio.
Penguins in 6.