The Runner Sports

NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs Preview: Pittsburgh Penguins vs Columbus Blue Jackets

This opening round series of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs is drawing a lot of ire and the first very concerning example of the imperfect system of divisional playoffs the league moved to in 2013. As a result of the new seeding and playoff arrangements, three of the Eastern Conference’s top teams will have likely clashed before the Conference Finals ever even arrive. This series, in particular, pitting the 2nd and 3rd teams in the conference as the opening act. That’s like telling Beyonce she’s the opening act for the Beibs. Ok, that’s an unfair comparison considering the Stanley Cup Playoffs are typically front to end exhilarating. But you catch what’s being laid down.

Sadly, for one team that spent an 82-game season busting their ass, they will find their playoffs short-lived, and not simply because some Wild Card team came out of nowhere and upset the system. What it will result in is a brutally fought contest early into the playoffs, which is exactly what the system was designed to deliver. Ensuring opening round divisional matchups secures some juicy action from the first drop of the puck.

The Penguins enter looking to defend their 2016 Stanley Cup and become the first team since the Detroit Red Wings to go back-to-back since 1997 & 1998. The NHL enjoys a healthy bit of parity, so odds are certainly stacked against a very good team.

The Blue Jackets enter representing their first playoff appearance since 2014 and just their third ever finishing the season 50-24-8 with 108 points.

 

Offense

What more needs to be said other than Sidney Crosby? Sid the Kid led the league in goals for the first time since 2010 with 44; only Connor McDavid featuring more points on the year than his 89. The Penguins offense has been a well-oiled killing machine this season, leading the league with 278 goals or a 3.39 goals per game average. Slowing them down proving to be no mundane task.

Columbus, meanwhile, enters quietly riding the 6th best offense in the league behind their 247 goals. Twelve skaters broke the 10-goal mark this season, with Cam Atkinson pacing the scoring on his 35 goals and 27 assists.

Pittsburgh looks to just burn the fuel reserves and use their speed and agility to tire down opponents and create space for scorers. Their depth allowing them to work at a break-neck speed. The Penguins don’t feature a line that doesn’t pack a punch, which creates high-stress for the top defensive pairings for opponents.

Good news came in for the Penguins as Evgeni Malkin has been given the all-clear to play in Game 1. They’re still awaiting positive news for wingers Chris Kunitz (9 goals, 20 assists) and Carl Hagelin (6 goals, 16 assists).

 

Defense

Pittsburgh’s defense will never take center stage with the likes of Crosby dominating headlines, but the Penguins have always backed Crosby with very formidable defenses. They’ll have a big hole to fill this time around as Kris Letang will continue to miss action very possibly into next season due to a herniated disc he had surgery on just a week ago. It’ll put heavy weight on a defense that got anywhere north of 30 minutes of ice time from Letang. The good news is they showed they could at least temporarily weather the absence as the team went 13-7-3 following his removal from the lineup on February 25.

They neared 100% of their roster strength when the likes of Olli Maatta and Trevor Daley returned to the lineup in the final days of the season.

Finding a way to slow down Crosby is never an easy task, especially considering every inch you take away from him you open up space for everybody else on the ice.  Brandon Dubinsky’s been a major thorn in Crosby’s side, always playing extra physical and looking to bump him off the puck whenever possible. He’ll need to not be overaggressive in his pursuit of Crosby and make smart plays. Perhaps more than the defenders behind him, Dubinsky as that first line of defense needs to keep Crosby uncomfortable.

Columbus has three solid shot blockers and really don’t shy away from laying defensive bodies on the line to stop pucks. Seth Jones (118), David Savard (126), and Jack Johnson (134) all finishing in the top 75 of the league in blocked shots.

 

Goaltending

Sergei Bobrovsky is a front-runner for the Vezina Trophy following his stellar output this season (.931 save%, 2.06 GAA). His play a big part in the 32-point turnaround from a year ago.

Matt Murray saw a small regression statistically this season, but still put forth a respectable .923 save percentage and 2.41 GAA. His noted play in the Penguins’ cup run a season ago bodes very well for the team.

Where Murray’s proven he can stand on his head on the biggest of stages, Bobrovsky’s struggled in the limited postseason action he has seen, representing a 2-6 record with a 3.50 GAA and .890 save percentage in 13 playoff games.

 

Special Teams

Things haven’t been smooth sailing for the Blue Jackets as of late with special teams, specifically the entire second half of the season where they converted on just 11.5% of a power play chances after starting the year hitting a 25.8% clip in their first 41 games.

The high-power offense for Pittsburgh truly thrives with any man advantage, finished 3rd in the league, converting on 23.1% of power plays.

Columbus takes the big advantage on the kill, having fought off 82.5% this season to Pittsburgh’s 79.8%.

 

Coaching Reunion

John Tortorella and Mike Sullivan have a long coaching history together dating back to their time spent on the same staff with the Tampa Bay Lightning, New York Rangers, and Vancouver Canucks spanning from 2007-14. Upon the pair’s dismissal from the Canucks in 2014 the two parted ways, Sullivan accepting a player development coach role for the Chicago Blackhawks before joining the Penguins’ AHL affiliate as head coach in 2015. He overtook as interim head coach of the Penguins in 2016 and subsequently led the team to a Stanley Cup victory; Tortorella joining the Blue Jackets in 2015 where he’s been since.

The two rejoined for the reintroduced World Cup of Hockey this last fall on the Team USA staff and remain close friends.

The two know the ins and outs of one another’s coaching strategy and it will be interesting to see these two long-time colleagues go toe to toe in a chess match.

 

Penguins win if…

Being the Pittsburgh Penguins has its merits. Sidney Crosby and Co. simply need to step out on that ice and play their game, using their speed, depth, and scoring talent to just overpower the Blue Jackets. They certainly can’t get comfortable in this series as Columbus poses a very real threat, but they shouldn’t look to introduce anything foreign to their course of a gameplan.

Blue Jackets win if…

Columbus needs to come out and showcase their physical advantage. Pittsburgh might have the flash, but the Blue Jackets can bump and grind with the best of them. Their scorers have proven they can hang all season long, now it’s just a matter of putting a lid on Crosby for as big of spurts as is humanly possible and pounce when given the chance. Sergei also looks more like a Cirque Du Soleil performer than NHL goaltender.

 

Prediction

The Penguins have plenty of lingering injuries to keep themselves up at night, but their talent very much remains on hand. Crosby is a legendary scorer at this point in his career, and the offense that facilitates behind him is no slouch.  The Blue Jackets have taken some grand steps forward and this will be much-appreciated exposure to the next level for many of their younger skaters and vets alike. An unfortunate break in the standings will be a hot topic for much of the summer regardless of who falls in this matchup.

Penguins in 7

Tyler Arnold

Tyler Arnold

I am the founder and editor-in-chief of The Runner Sports. I've been an avid sports fan since I was a child and have turned that love into a profession. I will watch, comment, and break down anything I can get my hands on, from football to white water rafting in the Olympics. Your visit means a lot to me, so thank you for your readership.
Tyler Arnold