April 11, 2017, 11:06 AM ET [11 Comments]
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Tale of the Tape
Record: 50-21-11 (2nd in Metropolitan Division)
Goals For: 282 (1st in NHL)
Goals Against: 234 (17th in NHL)
Goal Differential: +48 (4th in NHL)
5 on 5 Corsi: 50.14% (16th in the NHL)
Leading Scorer: Sidney Crosby 89 points (2nd in NHL)
Columbus Blue Jackets
Record: 50-24-8 (3rd in Metropolitan Division)
Goals For: 249 (6th in NHL)
Goals Against: 195 (2nd in NHL)
Goal Differential: +54 (3rd in NHL)
5 on 5 Corsi: 50.29% (14th in the NHL)
Leading Scorer: Cam Atkinson 62 points (33rd in NHL)
This is the series I think everyone wanted. The last time these two teams met in the playoffs in 2014 was an epic series and real battle. It really sparked the Pittsburgh-Columbus rivalry and it has just grown in the years since. That first series was good but it’s going to be nothing compared to what this one will be. Last time the Jackets just squeaked into the playoffs and were the heavy underdog. They were just happy to be part of the dance. This time however things have changed, Columbus is coming off of their best season in franchise history and have a real chance to win this series.
How did we get here, well Columbus as has been talked about all season has a balanced four line attack. Their fourth line of Sam Gagner-Lukas Sedlak-Scott Hartnell has been very good all season; they epitomize the identity of the Blue Jackets. They are big, they are skilled, and can make you pay with either. The Jackets have a team of players like this and it helped them to the third best goal differential in the NHL.
Pittsburgh on the other hand, as they have been for years is an offensive juggernaut. They lead the league in goals for at 282, their second year in a row ranking in the top three. They have three players in Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel who hit at least 70 points. All three totals ranked ahead of the Jackets leading scorer, Cam Atkinson. Pittsburgh plays a speed and skill game with those three, as well as players like Connor Sheary, Jake Guentzel, Patric Hornqvist and Nick Bonino. The Jackets are by no means a slow team but it will be a test to keep pace with the Penguins speed.
Up front Pittsburgh has the clear advantage, for the Jackets to neutralize it they need to play their game and not get caught up going chance for chance. They need to focus on controlling the puck and establishing the cycle. Their best chance is to get the puck deep and hopefully wear these forwards down. Crosby and Malkin also have the reputation of players who can be rattled and thrown off their game, and you know very well Columbus is going to do everything they can to do that. Every time one of those stars is on the ice they are going to be hooked, slashed, cross-checked etc. and after the whistle there will be plenty of scrums and chirping.
Brandon Dubinsky will be right in the middle of it, and will be all over Crosby, but the Jackets have plenty of players who can be agitators. Boone Jenner who plays alongside Dubinsky will be doing the exact same thing as too will Josh Anderson. The Jackets need to be careful with this style that they don’t end up with retaliation penalties or just dirty unnecessary plays. If they end up crossing a line and get a major penalty (or even a few minors) in a game, Pittsburgh’s power play will take advantage.
On the back end the Jackets might actually have a slight advantage. The Penguins will be missing their best defencemen in Kris Letang who’s on the injured reserve. He's a big time defencemen on both sides of the puck and is a huge loss. Despite that Pittsburgh defence is still solid. Olli Maatta only played in 55 games this season, but he's healthy now and is a very good defencemen. Justin Shultz has emerged and has become a real strong go to option offensively. He finished tied for seventh in defencemen scoring with 51 points. They also have a very experienced group with players like Ian Cole, Trevor Daley and Ron Hainsey. With the exception of Hainsey, these guys have been in the playoffs before and know what to expect.
The Jackets defence is very skilled but inexperience will definitely be an issue. Zach Werenski as incredible as he was is still just a rookie. He's also banged up and not at 100%, missing the last four games. Seth Jones had a very strong season with 42 points. He has limited playoff experience playing in just one series for Nashville. Most of this defence group has very limited playoff exposure. David Savard who will be tasked with the tough defensive assignments has played in just one series. His partner Jack Johnson has played in 18 playoff games (12 with the Kings and 6 with the Jackets) and has always risen to the occasion, scoring over a point per game. The Jackets most experienced player would be Kyle Quincey who has played in 54 playoff games. He will be on the third pair but will be crucial to helping the young defencemen learn what it takes to play in the playoffs. Quincey will be paired with another rookie in Markus Nutivaara. Nutivaara had a couple strong playoff runs in Finland, so hopefully he can draw on those experiences to help him here.
With Letang out, the Jackets have the talent edge for the defencemen. That advantage is very much off-set by the fact that Pittsburgh defence is very experienced, winning the Stanley Cup last season.
Turing to the goaltenders this is where the Jackets have a clear advantage. Matt Murray is a very good goalie and again has plenty of playoff experience, but he is not the same calibre of goalie that Sergei Bobrovsky is. Bobrovksy led the league with a .931 save percentage and fourth with a .939 sv% at 5 on 5. He is the likely Vezina trophy winner, and has bailed the Jackets out numerous times this year. He will need to be good again if the Jackets are to win the series.
This is going to be a fantastic series and one that will be talked about for a long time. On paper Pittsburgh has the better team but injuries to players like Kris Letang and Carl Hagelin makes the two teams closer. The key to series will be the Dubinsky-Crosby matchup. If Dubinsky can keep Crosby off the score sheet while staying out of the box, Columbus will have a chance. If not it could be a short series. With this being a Blue Jackets blog, I have picked them to win. It is going to be close though.