Here we are. It is finally game day of the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Oh, how long we have waited for this day. For Columbus Blue Jackets fans, it has been three years since their last playoff appearance. And just as in 2014, their counterpart for the first round will be the Pittsburgh Penguins.
This is a much-anticipated series given the hatred between the two teams and their fan bases. The rivalry blossomed in that 2014 series in which Pittsburgh held off Columbus in six close games. Ever since then, each game they have played against each other has had a playoff atmosphere. There’s probably nothing I can say to hype this series up any higher than it already is. So, I’ll leave it at this, it’s going to be a fun one.
What Everybody’s Talking About
Tortorella vs. Sullivan
The bench bosses for the two teams are really good friends. John Tortorella and Mike Sullivan have a long history that dates back to Torts’ time in Tampa Bay. Sullivan served as an assistant for six straight years under Tortorella. He was also an assistant on the USA coaching staff that Torts headed during the World Cup of Hockey in September. These two know each other very well, so we’ll see the chess match they play throughout the series.
Dubinsky vs. Crosby
Every time Pittsburgh plays Columbus, Brandon Dubinsky and Sidney Crosby square off. It has become known league-wide that Dubinsky is one of, if not the best, at shutting down the Penguins’ superstar. Dubinsky on Crosby will be the marquee matchup of this series.
The last time these two teams met in the playoffs, Crosby scored zero goals. Crosby led the NHL in goals this year, though, so keeping him from putting the puck in the net will be a difficult task. Dubinsky will need an effort similar to the 2014 postseason. If Dubinsky scores more goals in the series than Crosby, the series will likely go to the Jackets.
Dark Horses for the Jackets
Yes, there are the obvious names to watch from both teams. Crosby, Malkin and Kessel from the Penguins. Atkinson, Saad and Foligno from the Jackets. You’ve got the elite goaltending matchup between Sergei Bobrovsky and Matt Murray. But sometimes during the playoffs, teams get production from their unsung heroes. There are a couple that come to mind when looking at the Jackets.
You Don’t Know Jack
When Columbus faced Pittsburgh in the first round back in 2014, the best player for the Jackets was arguably defenseman Jack Johnson. He was everywhere. In that six-game series, he finished with a scoring line of 3-4-7. Johnson is the only current Jackets defenseman to score a playoff goal. He is also the only current Jackets player to average over a point per game in his playoff career.
In 2014, he was the top D-man for Columbus and logged a lot of minutes. He’s not likely to receive the same amount of ice time this go-around; however, he clearly comes alive in the postseason. He can deliver the big hit at any moment given his 6-foot-1, 226-pound frame. But in this series, when Jack is on the ice, watch out. He’s looking to make a difference in the offensive zone.
Early in the season against the Rangers, forward Matt Calvert took a slap shot to the face, bled all over the ice and left the game only to came back in the third period to score the game-winning goal shorthanded. That’s the kind of guy Calvert is. And that kind of effort is what you’ll see from the usual bottom-six forward. At 5 feet 11 inches and 188 pounds, he’s not the biggest guy. But he plays like it. What he’ll give you is a solid 10-15 minutes of grinder-style hockey with the ability to kill penalties and score greasy goals.
In the 2014 playoffs, Calvert had a scoring line 2-2-4 in six games including the game-winning goal in overtime in Game 2 that gave Columbus its first playoff win in franchise history. He has a history of being the hero. Don’t be surprised if Matty does it again in these playoffs.
How Can the Jackets Win the Series?
The Jackets are the underdogs in this series, no doubt. But it would be a mistake to count them out. Both teams have exceptional depth at forward with four lines that can make a difference. The Penguins have the offensive edge as long as Crosby and Malkin are both in the lineup. Keeping those two off the scoresheet as much as possible gives the Jackets the best chance of winning.
The goaltending matchup is going to be a fun one to watch. Murray won the Cup last year for the Penguins and Bobrovsky has been in Vezina form all year long. The arrow points to the Jackets between the pipes.
In my opinion, the defensive edge goes to the Jackets given the injuries to the Penguins defense. With top defenseman Kris Letang out for the entire playoffs, their blue line took a major blow. Along with Johnson, young Jackets defensemen Seth Jones and Zach Werenski can provide some scoring help as well as play lockdown defense.
Since Pittsburgh has home-ice advantage, the Jackets will have to win at least one game on the road to win the series. That is something they did not do this regular season. Splitting the first two away games is always an ideal situation for the road team. The Jackets did that in 2014 and if they can do it again, they’ll have a chance to take control of the series at home.
No Lead Is Safe
When these two met in the 2014 playoffs, every game except for one ended in a 4-3 score. In four of those games, the losing team gave up at least a two-goal lead at least once to lose the game. In Game 6, the Jackets scored three third-period goals and nearly tied the game after surrendering four Penguins goals through the first 40 minutes. So, if that series is any indication, having a lead is not enough and the Jackets will have to come from behind quite a bit to win the series.
It will be a highly physical battle between two fierce rivals. One team is trying for back-to-back Stanley Cups while the other is looking for its first playoff series win. The Jackets are a confident bunch. They’ve had a tremendous season full of milestones and record-setting achievements. But they have more to accomplish. They believe they belong with the best of the best. This opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs provides the Blue Jackets with a prime opportunity to prove it to the rest of the league.