The Columbus Blue Jackets had a terrific year, but they’ve drawn the assignment of facing the defending champs in the first round. That’s no easy feat, especially for a club that hasn’t seen post-season puck since 2014, but these Blue Jackets pulled off a 50-24-8 record in the regular season.
The Pittsburgh Penguins finished three points ahead of the Jackets with a 50-21-11 record and went 12-6-3 in their last 21 games. They took home their fourth Stanley Cup last season and will be looking to repeat, having made it to the post-season for 11 consecutive seasons. They met the Blue Jackets in the 2014 playoffs and won that series.
But a lot has changed since 2014. The Penguins and Blue Jackets are among the strongest offensive clubs in the NHL, with Pittsburgh totalling 278 goals and Columbus putting up 247. The Pens charted the fourth-best shooting percentage at 10.1 percent, with the likes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin scoring on more than 17 percent of their shots. Jake Guentzel scored on almost 20 percent of his chances.
What does this mean? Watch for goals.
It all starts with Crosby. Astonishingly, “arguments” are still made about his efficacy and some people just don’t like him. Too bad. Crosby heaped up a helping of 44 goals and 45 assists this season for a total of 89 points in 75 games. He had 25 points on the power play. The Blue Jackets must contain him if they want to win.
All signs point to Evgeni Malkin returning for Game One. The 30-year-old had 72 points in 62 games this season, including 33 goals, and has collected 129 points across 124 playoff games. That experience gives him an edge.
22-year-old Guentzel will get his first taste of playoff action. He put together 33 points in 40 games this season. He’s adaptable and has the refinement to finish plays, so expectations are high. With most of the heat on Crosby and Malkin, Guentzel could play spoiler.
Cam Atkinson led the charge for the Blue Jackets this season with 62 points in 82 games, including 35 goals. His skill and energy has powered Columbus and he’s not done. He spent much of the season as part of a shutdown unit with Brandon Dubinsky and Boone Jenner, but that line will split up to maximize coverage.
Winger Nick Foligno put up 26 goals and added 25 assists in 2016-2017, plus he handles high-traffic areas. Alexander Wennberg is also a factor, with 59 points in 80 games. He did cool off toward the end of the season, but there’s nothing like playoff hockey to revive a hot streak.
But Dubinsky may have the most vital role, as he’ll have to cover Crosby and score goals. The two fought each other in 2015 and aren’t exactly best buds. Dubinsky has an exceptional ability to get under Sid’s skin and that’ll pay dividends, especially if the 30-year-old from Anchorage can pop in a couple goals.
While this series will feature a lot of firepower, defence matters. Regrettably, this is where things unspool for the Penguins. They’re without Kris Letang and that stinks. Sure, they’ve gone 13-7-3 in his absence. And sure, they can probably win without him. But the situation is less than ideal.
Justin Schultz has been filling in the gaps. The 26-year-old has taken the role of lead anchor. He’s been averaging 20:27 of ice time a game and will see a promotion in the playoffs, plus he amassed 12 goals in the regular season.
Veteran Ron Hainsey will have a chance to prove he still has a role to play. The 36-year-old will finally have a shot in the dance, having played 13 years of hockey without seeing the playoffs. He’s averaging over 22 minutes of ice time a game and will draw tough assignments, but he’s got wheels and a good reach.
The Blue Jackets have been one of the stingiest teams in the NHL this season and that’s going to give the Penguins some trouble. A lot of that comes down to goaltending, but the blueline in Columbus is formidable and comparatively mobile.
22-year-old Seth Jones averages 23:24 of ice time a game and knows how to play multiple roles. He can play shutdown hockey and he can lug the puck up ice. He had 42 points in 75 games this season. And he’s benefitted from playing alongside Zach Werenski, the 19-year-old who should be ready to return for the playoffs.
Jack Johnson will be a factor. The 30-year-old is one of the best skaters on the team and he knows how to get into the open for offensive plays. He’s got 23 points in 82 regular season games. He averages 21:50 of ice time a game. He can score on the breakaway.
Matt Murray will be the starter for the Penguins. Perhaps. The 22-year-old had 32 wins, four shutouts, a goals against average of 2.41, and a save percentage of .923. He has a projectable frame and can put together a complete game, but inexperience could be a factor.
Marc-Andre Fleury is, in the opinion of head coach Mike Sullivan, a sure number one. Fleury hasn’t started many games since January, but the 32-year-old could win approval thanks to his experience in the playoffs.
Sergei Bobrovsky is at the top of his game. The 28-year-old Russian netminder went 41-17-5 in the regular season, with a 2.06 goals against average and a .931 save percentage. He posted seven shutouts and is in the Vezina discussion once more.
Bobrovsky has the dimensions to carry the Blue Jackets to the promised land, but he’s not ironclad. The last time he made the post-season, he went 2-4 with a .908 save percentage and a 3.17 goals against average. He’s 2-6 all-time in the playoffs, with a 3.50 goals against average and an .890 save percentage.
Who Will Win
The Penguins are the more practiced and gifted team, but that doesn’t mean they’ll walk away with an easy win. The Blue Jackets are coming off an improbable year and boast a high-scoring, high confidence roster. That can go a long way.
But so can experience. That’s why Pittsburgh keeps floating back to the top of the argument. The Penguins have some of the best players in the NHL. They have the edge in almost every category and could get under Bobrovsky’s skin early. And that could end this series in a hurry.
My call: Pittsburgh in six.