The first round’s most unfair series pits two of the NHL’s elite teams against each other thanks to the league playoff format, setting up what should be a close and vicious series.
THE BLUE JACKETS WIN IF…
Make no mistake. A Blue Jackets series win wouldn’t mean Goliath slew David. This series is David vs. David. Columbus earned its juggernaut status this season, gelling as a hardworking team under taskmaster coach John Tortorella.
The Blue Jackets have a deep, physical forward group. Cam Atkinson and Nick Foligno can burn you from the first line. Alexander Wennberg and Brandon Saad can burn you from the second line. Boone Jenner and Scott Hartnell can burn you from the third line. Heck, fourth-liner Josh Anderson sniped 17 goals. On defense, big, smooth-skating phenoms Seth Jones and Zach Werenski have transformed this team’s identity. They can dictate the play and, with Pittsburgh’s Kris Letang injured, Columbus has something the Penguins don’t have: marquee do-it-all blueliners, assuming Werenski is healthy enough to play in Game 1. With so much talent sprinkled throughout their lineup, it’s no wonder the Jackets rate as one of the league’s better possession teams, sitting eighth in 5-on-5 score, zone and venue-adjusted Corsi according to corsica.hockey.
And, of course, the engine driving this team more than anything else is goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. He was remarkably dominant this season, not only finishing top-three in the NHL in the triple crown categories of wins, goals-against average and save percentage, but also posting excellent advanced statistics in even-strength save percentage and low-, medium- and high-danger SP. ‘Bob’ changed his diet and exercise regimen in hopes of avoiding groin injuries this season, and it worked. He has the ability to steal this series.
THE PENGUINS WIN IF…
Coach Mike Sullivan told me a couple weeks ago his goal when he first took over the Penguins was to establish a franchise identity so that every other team in the NHL would describe Pittsburgh the same way. Sullivan realized the team’s best strength was speed and implemented a system designed to maximize that. It naturally helped a superstar like Sidney Crosby catch fire, but it made the entire team more effective. A system designed to stress aggressive forechecking and quick north-south puck movement turned speeders like Conor Sheary and Bryan Rust into legit NHL scorers. It also took a relatively faceless D-corps, including the likes of Trevor Daley and Brian Dumoulin, and made them effective because they would fire the puck quickly up ice with stretch passes.
That system helped the Pens win the Cup last year and could help the Pens overcome a devastating season-ending injury to Letang, one of the NHL’s best defensemen. If Daley, Dumoulin, Justin Schultz, Ian Cole, Ron Hainsey and Mark Streit keep things simple pushing the puck up ice, the Pens’ forward corps will do the rest.
The Pens, like the Chicago Blackhawks, are a bit top heavy, led up front by stars Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel, but this team works so well as a unit under Sullivan that whoever seems to play on their lines finds a way to flourish. Look at how quickly Jake Guentzel started putting up huge points beside Crosby and Sheary. The Pens don’t wow you on paper after their superstars but they just keep coming with their fleet-footed role players.
‘Bob’ was the game’s best goalie this season, but the Jackets don’t necessarily have a massive edge in goal. Rookie Matt Murray was a borderline top-five netminder this year and has a Stanley Cup run under his belt already. He actually has the experience edge on Bobrovsky.
Blue Jackets: It’s obviously Brandon Dubinsky. He epitomizes the concept of a playoff series X-factor. He’s known for his physical feuds with Crosby and is quite open about the fact he goes out of his way to play No. 87 as tough as possible. It’s gotten Dubinsky slapped with a one-game suspension for a cross check in the past, but he said at the time he won’t change the way he plays against Sid. We know Crosby can get emotional if prodded enough, and that will be Dubinsky’s goal. He’ll try to goad the Penguins captain into petty wars.
Penguins: Has Justin Schultz truly blossomed into the front-line defenseman he was supposed to become in his Edmonton days? Or is he merely a product of Sullivan’s system? We’re about to find out, as Schultz is the Pens’ de facto top blueliner with Letang out. Schultz should play the most minutes of any Pittsburgh D-man, get major power play time and be targeted by the Blue Jackets’ rambunctious forwards in the corners early and often. How will he hold up against that onslaught?
The lauded Sidney Crosby vs. Brandon Dubinsky matchup is back in the spotlight with a Penguins vs. Blue Jackets rematch and it’ll be interesting to see if Dubinsky can repeat his efforts from last time around. On paper it’s a huge mismatch as Crosby is, well, Crosby, and Dubinsky is merely a competent middle six center who, interestingly enough, doesn’t even look all that great at suppressing shots. But when they play each other everything changes as Dubinsky somehow gets the edge in shot attempts and keeps things close for goals, too. This is maybe one of the most complete Crosbys we’ve ever seen though and it’ll be very interesting to see if he does a better job with this matchup than he has in year’s past. (Dom Luszczyszyn)
PENGUINS in seven games.