It’s the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins opening their playoff season against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Surely this series for the Penguins should work out in their favor. They’ve been through this program before. They know what it takes to win multiple playoff series. They’re getting healthy at the right time. The Blue Jackets don’t stand a chance in this series.
That last sentence is what you’d likely hear from an uninformed fan. Need I remind you that the Penguins have likely the toughest first round draw of anyone in these playoffs.
Don’t Underestimate the Blue Jackets
Thanks to the current playoff format, the team with the fourth-best record in hockey (the Blue Jackets) open on the road against the team with the second-best record (the Penguins). This series is worthy of at least at second-round matchup or later. No instead, because they both finished behind the Washington Capitals, they get to play each other in round one.
The Blue Jackets are no slouch. They won 50 games this season. One look at their lineup suggests that they can hang with the Penguins over the course of a series. The Blue Jackets have skill. They’re young and hungry. They’re seeking revenge from what happened in 2013-14. The components for an “upset” are there.
This series could easily be one of the best opening-round matchups we’ve seen in some time given how good both teams are. Buckle up for this one. This series has 6-7 games written all over it.
Going the Distance?
Let’s take a closer look at this series. Of the three major components offense, defense and goaltending, the Blue Jackets have a slight edge in two of the three while the Penguins have a sizable edge in the other.
Offense: Advantage Penguins
Let’s face it. Any team who can boast the best player in the world Sidney Crosby gets a leg up. Then add Evgeni Malkin, who should return Wednesday, and Phil Kessel. The Penguins’ skill is off the charts. They won the Cup last season with each of them playing on different lines. Yikes.
The Blue Jackets are known more for their depth. Think of them as having three different second lines and a third line acting as their fourth line. The Blue Jackets can close the gap on the Penguins by having their bottom-six play better. Scott Hartnell, Sam Gagner and Oliver Bjorkstrand is a formidable third line. Matt Calvert, William Karlsson and Josh Anderson is a solid fourth line. The X-factor here is Bjorkstrand.
Bjorkstrand came up to the Blue Jackets late in the season and provided them a much-needed spark down the stretch. He was sorely missed after Roman Polak knocked him out of action for sometime. Now that he’s back, he can give the Blue Jackets a solid, third scoring line. If he gets things going, this is definitely a long series.
Defense: Slight Advantage Blue Jackets
This is where not having Kris Letang hurts. You miss his ability to handle the puck and move it quickly. You miss him on the power play. There’s no one on the Penguins’ roster that can fully make up for Letang’s absence.
With the Blue Jackets expected to get Zach Werenski back Wednesday, the Blue Jackets do have a slight advantage here, despite their youth. Werenski and Seth Jones along with their second pair of Jack Johnson and David Savard make a formidable top-four. Here is how the Penguins defense looked in their practice on Tuesday.
#Pens defensive pairings:
— Josh Getzoff (@PensJG) April 11, 2017
See what not having Letang does to a defense?
The Penguins are still solid but are clearly down a notch. The opportunity is there for the Blue Jackets to score enough goals to stay in this series with this defensive alignment.
Goaltending: Slight Advantage Blue Jackets
Both goalies in this series are excellent. Sergei Bobrovsky is the favorite to win his second career Vezina trophy. As long as he’s in the game, the Blue Jackets are in the game. But Matt Murray is no slouch. He already has a Cup to his name.
Buckeye State Hockey wrote an informative piece on the goaltending matchup and who has the edge. They evaluated different metrics in different situations. They concluded that the Blue Jackets have a slight edge in net.
With the potential that both offenses have, this battle between Bobrovsky and Murray could decide the series. Considering how good both goalies are, this is another reason I think this series goes at least six games.
I mentioned above that Bjorkstrand is the Blue Jackets X-factor. If he starts scoring like he can, he gives the Blue Jackets an extra element that the Penguins must account for. Who is the X-factor for the Penguins? I see two for them. They are Phil Kessel and Matt Cullen.
Kessel is obvious. If he’s scoring like he can, the Penguins are a different monster. If not, they are beatable. His production can have a direct influence on the outcome of the series.
I say Cullen because he will likely see lots of time against the bottom-six of the Blue Jackets. If he can neutralize them over the course of the series, you take away a good chunk of the Blue Jackets’ depth. That matchup might not get as much attention as it deserves. In the most recent game in Pittsburgh, Cullen’s line killed the Blue Jackets. The Penguins won going away. This is something I will watch closely.
It’s well-known that John Tortorella and Mike Sullivan are close friends. Once this series starts, that friendship goes out the door until it ends.
Because of their familiarity with one another, I’ll be fascinated to see how they handle things against one another. Sullivan knows Tortorella’s tendencies and vice versa. Will gamesmanship become a part of this series? You better believe it.
There’s no surprises with these coaches. Given their familiarity, both teams will have some idea of what to expect from each other. It comes down to executing their game plan. When teams are this close in the standings with coaches who know each other, you can expect a long series.
How will they match lines? How will they handle their lineup decisions? All these little things can go a long way in determining a winner. This will be one fascinating chess match to watch. Maybe there will be another exchange like earlier in the season.
— SB Nation NHL (@SBNationNHL) December 23, 2016
I’m not going to predict a winner here. The only thing I’ll say is that this series will go at least six games. We might even see an overtime game or two. The only thing I can say with confidence is get your pacemaker ready. This series will have plenty of heart-stopping moments. The team who endures will live to see the second round.
Can the Columbus Blue Jackets make history and win their first ever playoff series? Or will the Pittsburgh Penguins continue their playoff success and deal another blow to the Blue Jackets? Strap yourself in for the long haul. We’re all going to find out together. Enjoy the ride fans.