Playoff Preview: Columbus Blue Jackets vs. Boston Bruins

The Columbus Blue Jackets have been waiting a while for their second round opponents, having posted the Tampa Bay Lightning in an improbable first round sweep. The Boston Bruins, on the other hand, are fresh from a seven-game run against the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Bruins sealed the deal with a resounding 5-1 win Tuesday.

This is the first time the Bruins and Blue Jackets have met in the playoffs. It’s also the first time Columbus has seen action in the second round, while this is old hat for Boston. They’ve cleared the first round seven times since 2009, including when they won a championship in 2011 and went to the Stanley Cup Final in 2013.

The Blue Jackets, who haven’t played since April 16, have been keeping things warm. But there is no substitute for game action and that may prove difficult when the rubber hits the road. “There’s no complaints here,” head coach John Tortorella said. “There’s no sense in worrying about [too many days off]. We’re just going to keep on practicing and trying to go about our business the right way.”

The Bruins, meanwhile, are coming off a hard-fought series against the Maple Leafs. They had to win back-to-back games in order to cover, but they showcased their best side when they were down and out. Boston outscored Toronto 9-3 in the final two games.

Scoring

The Blue Jackets come into the dance full in the knowledge that they outscored the Tampa Bay Lightning, no easy feat in any situation. Columbus was strong on the puck and played possession hockey, generating shots and scoring chances ostensibly at will. And their best came to play, starting with Matt Duchene. Six Blue Jackets had at least four points and the team averaged 4.75 goals per game.

The late purchase had seven points in four games, plus he finished a plus-five with 10 shots on goal. That’s an incredible showing. He’ll start the second round between Ryan Dzingel, another ex-Senator, and Cam Atkinson. Duchene, locked in a three-game point and goal streak, had four points in Game Two.

Artemi Panarin also came to play against Tampa. He had five points in four games, including two goals and eight shots on goal. Atkinson had four points, including two goals and eight shots on goal. Part of the potency of Columbus’ attack came on the power play, which was a whopping 50 percent against Tampa. Atkinson, by the way, came to play.

The Bruins got their offence going in spite of the speed of the Maple Leafs, but Toronto’s lacklustre defence gave them plenty of opportunities. That won’t happen against Columbus, who boast a stronger D and will present a more formidable challenge. And that will push Boston to alternate their attack, which means we could see more variety and line-juggling.

Brad Marchand led the way with nine points in seven games, including four goals and five assists. He had five points on the power play, including a goal, and generated 28 shots on goal. His numbers dwarf the Blue Jackets’ scorers on many levels, but he had three more games to get the job done. Against Columbus this season, Marchand had seven points in three games.

David Pastrnak was second on the team in scoring against Toronto. He had six points in seven games, including two goals – one of which came on the power play. Patrice Bergeron had five goals in seven, while David Krejci also had five in seven. Charlie Coyle had three goals and four points, finishing a plus-one.

Defence

Defence is Columbus’ strong suit and they’ll do all they can to contain the Bruins. Boston’s experience could be a factor, but the Blue Jackets play a well-organized game. That translated to taking just two minor penalties a game, fewest among all playoff squads. That means that the Bruins won’t find them back on their heels much, which confines chances against.

The Blue Jackets will put Seth Jones and Zach Werenski front and centre against hard-hitting Boston assignments and that’ll be a change of pace. Jones, 24, had four points against Tampa and averaged 25:41 of ice time a game. He can shift from an offensive style to a shutdown role without missing a beat, plus his point shot is to be feared.

Werenski had five points against the Lightning and is a stable presence, averaging 25:07 of ice time a game. He had seven shots on goal. Like Jones, he can play an offensive style. He’s confident on the puck and can lead the rush from his own end, plus he’s a big dude at 6’2, 209 pounds. Werenski’s positioning means that Boston will have to get creative to find paths to the net.

The Bruins know how to shut it down when it counts. They were perfect on the penalty kill at home against Toronto and managed to go 4-0 when leading after the first period. They received disciplined play from Marchand, who could’ve gone over the wall against the Maple Leafs, and that helped them stay out of the box.

But they still tended to look a little shaky when Toronto got their speed game going. This led to turnovers and more than a few lapses in their own end. The Bruins allowed 2.67 goals against per game and will have to tighten that up, something they’re capable of given the experience dotting this roster.

Charlie McAvoy averaged 24:04 against Toronto and he had three points in seven games, including a power play goal. He knows how to play sound positional hockey and battles hard against bigger forwards. Zdeno Chara brings obvious size and he turns into a monster in the playoffs, averaging 21:34 a game at 42-years-old.

Goaltending

Columbus got all it needed out of Sergei Bobrovsky, who silenced doubters and critics with a stellar showing against the Lightning. He didn’t lose, posting a 2.01 goals against average and a .932 save percentage. He faced 117 shots from Tampa and never buckled. Bobrovsky’s looking for more of the same against Boston.

Confidence could be a thing, though. Ahead of this run, he’s just 5-14 in the post-season in two dozen games. His .891 save percentage in that span was the stuff of disappointment and it’s possible he could return to that form. It’s also probable that he won’t, especially given how well he ran the show against the so-called best team in hockey.

Tuukka Rask has the experience and knowhow to hold it down in the Boston crease. That’s going to count for a lot when it comes to this group. Rask has seen a lot of puck in the first round and is the busier of the two goalies, but that won’t rattle him. At all.

Rask saw 223 shots from Toronto and posted a 2.32 goals against average with a .928 save percentage. In the last two games, he closed the door and just allowed three goals on a total of 57 shots. He’s started 72 playoff games to Bobrovsky’s two dozen. Oh, and he has five playoff shutouts.

Prediction

Predictions are funny things. While I nailed all of one prediction in the first round (credibly, I must add), there’s really a sense that this year’s playoffs are something else. Tampa and Calgary are out and there are no Canadian teams remaining. In this series, it’s appealing to cast it as a battle of experience versus hunger. But there’s more to it, as the Blue Jackets proved against the Lightning, and a complete approach to the game will turn the dial once more.

For that reason, Columbus will abolish the Bruins in six.

(Photo credit: NHL.com)

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