The only sure thing we’ve learned through four games of the Pittsburgh-Columbus series is that anything is possible.
Powerplay goals. Shorthanded goals. Goaltender gaffes. The team that has scored first has lost every game. The team with the 3-1 lead has lost 4-3 every game.
I tossed four games worth of raw data into a database and sliced it every which way. Here are a few storylines to keep an eye on for the rest of the series.
Columbus likes to dump the puck. And Columbus likes to hit.
Despite their move to the Eastern Conference this season, the Blue Jackets still play a very Western Conference style of chip-and-chase hockey.
Let’s just say this hasn’t been an easy series if you’re a Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman.
The hit stat can be a little deceiving — you can only hit someone if you don’t have the puck — but one way we can start to measure the physicality of a forecheck is to only count offensive zone hits on opposing defensemen.
Here are some examples:
Through four games — looking only at even strength play — Columbus has hit Pittsburgh defensemen 89 times. Pittsburgh forwards have only returned the favor 48 times.
The Blue Jackets’ favorite targets have been Kris Letang and Paul Martin, both of whom have been nailed 19 times.
If we calculate forecheck hits received per minute of even strength ice time, Letang and Martin still lead the list.
I was a little surprised to see Scuderi at the bottom of the list, especially after reading this analysis from SBNation’s Adam Gretz through two games:
No matter the reason, it’s clear that teams are going out of their way to target Scuderi in an effort to exploit him, and this has been especially true with the Blue Jackets over the first two games of this series.
In Game 1, I counted 26 even-strength zone entry attempts with Scuderi on the ice. Sixteen of them were targeted at Scuderi’s side of the ice, including nine carry-in attempts, five dump-in attempts, and two attempts that Scuderi broke up. Seven of Columbus’ 17 shot attempts in that game with Scuderi on the ice were the direct result of controlled carry-ins to his side of the ice.
On the other hand, it makes a lot of sense when you consider how the Penguins handle corner dumps (see 2013 defense analysis).
The defenseman on the side of the dump challenges tightly at the blueline while their partner scoops up the puck in the corner and starts the breakout.
If Columbus is entering the zone and dumping the puck on Scuderi’s side of the ice, that means Letang is constantly going back to retrieve.
I’m sure Dan Bylsma and his coaching staff are fine with this — they want the puck on the stick of Letang and Martin to get it moving in the right direction. And Columbus is happy to make them pay the price for those retrievals.
“Our strengths are getting the puck below the goal line and investing in the physical play on their defensemen and trying to wear them down and creating the turnovers down there,” head coach Todd Richards said this week. “If they do get the puck, [we need to] make them come 200 feet.”
Look no further than Derek MacKenzie, with 15 hits of this variety in just 43 minutes of even strength ice time.
While the story seems positive for the Blue Jackets, it’s tough to maintain this level of physicality without wearing down, piling up injuries, or drawing penalties (against a very potent powerplay).
Columbus led the league in hits during the regular season with 32 per game. Excluding overtimes, they’re averaging 52 per game against the Penguins. They haven’t been outhit in a single period the entire series.
Can that continue?
The Blue Jackets may not have anything left in the tank should they advance to the second round, but just upsetting the Metropolitan division champion Penguins would be enough to call this season a huge success.
Columbus has been strong in the faceoff circle as well, winning 57 percent of draws since Game 1.
Leading the way for the Blue Jackets has been former-Penguin Mark Letestu. He’s won a ridiculous 71 percent of faceoffs in the series, including 11 of 15 against Sidney Crosby and 7 of 9 against Evgeni Malkin.
Part of his success is due to familiarity with the Pittsburgh roster, where he spent parts of three NHL seasons. Another reason is scouting and preparation.
I remember having a lengthy conversation with Letestu a few years ago after he won every single draw he took against Derek Stepan of the NY Rangers one afternoon. Having never taken a faceoff at the NHL level before, I wanted to know whether that was just luck or other factors at play.
His extremely in-depth answer offered insight into the intelligence and hard work he’s invested into an aspect of the game that goes generally unnoticed, yet can play a big role in a playoff game or series.
He takes it seriously and he knows that’s the one area he can consistently contribute.
Sidney Crosby continues to take the lion’s share of Pittsburgh faceoffs — he had 1887 faceoff attempts in the regular season, over 100 more than the second NHL player on the list.
From a head-to-head perspective, Crosby is getting beaten regularly by Letestu and Ryan Johansen, but is owning Brandon Dubinsky in the offensive zone (72%). If there’s one place on the ice Dubinsky doesn’t want to lose a faceoff against Crosby, it’s in the Blue Jackets’ own end.
This is a good sign for Crosby. Columbus has been matching Dubinsky across from him most of the series and Dubinsky was one of the league’s top five faceoff-men (58%) in the regular season.
Line Matchups vs. Crosby
Not only has Crosby faced Dubinsky for most of the series, but he’s been seeing a lot of Jack Johnson lately as well.
I’ll admit that I didn’t pay enough attention to the Penguins bench to know if they’ve made active line changes to avoid matchups on home ice. That’s usually not Dan Bylsma’s style though. He prefers to match defensive pairs against certain opposing forward units, if anything at all.
For the most part, it’s been Dubinsky’s line and Jack Johnson against the Crosby line.
Columbus coach Todd Richards admitted that he was comfortable rolling other lines against Crosby in Game 2, but that was also a result of special teams play that threw his line matchups off.
Johnson switched from right defense to left defense in Game 3 with the injury to Fedor Tyutin and hasn’t missed a beat. I’ve often been critical of Johnson and he’s proving me wrong this season and particularly in this series.
He’s not Drew Doughty, but he’s playing a significant role for the Blue Jackets on both ends of the ice.
Line Matchups vs. Malkin
The Blue Jackets seem to be favoring physical matchups against Evgeni Malkin and James Neal. In Games 3 and 4, Richards went with James Wisniewski on the back end almost every time Malkin stepped on the ice.
The Columbus forward minutes have been spread fairly evenly, but there always seems to be a physical forward up against Malkin as well.
In Game 1, that was the grinding unit of MacKenzie and Comeau. In Game 2, Boone Jenner went out of his way to harass Malkin. And in Game 3, RJ Umberger and Nick Foligno got the call.
The book is out on Malkin (and maybe Neal too, for that matter). He doesn’t like to get hit and is known to retaliate if the hits are constant and his offensive production is not.
Based on the eye test, Malkin’s line has been stronger than Crosby’s thus far, but neither superstar has a goal through four games. That will have to change if the Penguins hope to extend their season.