(Ed. Note: With its new playoff format, the NHL is seeking to create passion for fans and teams through forced, bracketed relationships. But hey, at first glance, the matchups are pretty sexy. All of this led to one ideal theme for our 2014 Playoff Preview: Tinder, the social media dating app. We hope you swipe right this postseason ...)
Both the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Columbus Blue Jackets should be rather happy with realignment.
Getting out of the West meant getting into the playoffs for the Jackets, who secured the wild card with 93 points and a plus-15 goal differential.
The Penguins meanwhile amassed 109 points in the Metropolitan, a division in which they were able to build a substantial lead and then coast through injuries. They were 20-8-2 within the division.
Can the upstart Blue Jackets take out the Cup-craving Penguins?
The conversation about the Penguins begins with Sidney Crosby, continues with Evgeni Malkin and then ends with a series of question marks.
Crosby is a lock to win the Hart this season with 104 points in 80 games, the constant on a team full of injuries. His running mate Chris Kunitz (35 goals) continued to thrive despite the fact that the third component of that line, Pascal Dupuis, was limited to just 39 games before being injured. Lee Stempniak has 11 points in 21 games since being acquired, but appears to have given way to Beau Bennett on the top line.
Evgeni Malkin is battling a foot injury but had 72 points in 60 games this season, anchoring a second line with James Neal (27 goals, much controversy) and Jussi Jokinen, who had 57 points and one of the better all-around seasons amongst Penguins forwards.
And then … some falloff. Brandon Sutter had 13 goals in 81 games, played to a minus-9 and was under 50-percent on draws. Brian Gibbons, Joe Vitale, ageless smarty-pants Craig Adams and others fill out a forward group that lacks offensive punch down the lineup.
For the Jackets, the heartbeat of the offense is Ryan Johansen, who broke out with a 33-goal season that had 26 of them at even strength. They were big goals, too: Eight times he scored the first goal of the game, and five times he scored the game-winner.
The Jackets actually have better offensive balance up front than do the Penguins. Artem Anisimov (22 goals), Cam Atkinson (21), Nick Foligno (18), RJ Umberger (18), Brandon Dubinsky (16), Boone Jenner (16) and former Penguin Mark Letestu (12) all contributed. Foglino and Umberger, however, are banged up and will miss at least Game 1. Don’t sleep on Matt Calvert, who can be clutch.
It’s close overall between the teams, but the Jackets don’t have a Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin on the roster – even if Johansen seems close to stardom.
Getting Paul Martin and Kris Letang back from injury makes this defense infinitely better for the Penguins, especially with the latter: Letang can push the pace, be a factor on special teams and really be a game-breaker offensively. Filling in during those injuries, Matt Niskanen had his best season as a pro and might earn some Norris votes. Brooks Orpik, as usual, contributed 21:11 per game of physical defense; ask Loui Eriksson and Jonathan Toews how he hits. The Piece, Rob Scuderi, Robert Bortuzzo and Deryk Engelland all contributed this season. One name to look out for: Rookie Olli Maata, who had 29 points in 78 games as Letang’s understudy.
The pace-setter for the Jackets defense is Jack Johnson, playing 24:40 per game with 33 assists in 82 games. James Wisniewski and Fedor Tyutin have been a solid pairing when coach Todd Richards has used them, while young David Savard has come into his own. Ryan Murray was solid with 21 points in 66 games. Nikita Nikitin and Dalton Prout round out the D-corps.
And here is where the Penguins are made or broken.
Marc-Andre Fleury has posted a save percentage under .900 in each of the last four postseasons since his Stanley Cup victory. The Penguins survived the first round last year, but Fleury didn’t, giving way to backup Tomas Vokoun, who’s healthy for the postseason. If he’s as good as he’s been in the regular season, playing behind a Jacques Martin-coached defense, then Pittsburgh’s fine. If his a slice of Swiss again, they’re in trouble.
Sergei Bobrovsky, meanwhile, is going to have to perform some thievery for the Jackets to win this season. He has playoff experience with the Flyers, although not much to write home about (career .848 save percentage in 7 games). But back-to-back seasons of a .923 save percentage – .931 at even strength – reveal a goalie ready for the task.
ADVANTAGE: Blue Jackets
The Jackets’ mad dash to the postseason saw them go 6-3-1 in their last 10 games, impressively closing out the wild card despite having no less than four teams nipping at their skates.
The Penguins went 5-3-2 in their last 10 games despite injuries and resting key players. Maybe that played into Fleury giving up two or more goals in his last five starts, including a pair of four-spots. Maybe not.
ADVANTAGE: Blue Jackets
Dan Bylsma faces the second toughest challenge of his year, and hopefully this goes better than the first one did. His seat in Pittsburgh is getting hotter despite coaching the Penguins through incredible man-games lost. A first-round upset here could, in theory, mean the end of Bylsma in Pittsburgh. Those are the stakes for a coach that tends to get out-coached in pressure situations.
Todd Richards used to coach the Penguins’ AHL affiliate and might have been Dan Bylsma had he not left the gig for an assistant coaching job in San Jose. With Columbus, he’s accentuated tough forechecking and earning goals, making the Jackets one of the most difficult teams to play in the East.
The Penguins’ power play ranked first in the NHL at 23.4 percent, tied with the Capitals. Their penalty kill was fifth overall at 85 percent.
The Jackets’ power play was 11th overall at 19.3 percent. Their PK was 14th overall at 82.1 percent.
With Letang back and Malkin healthy, this is a no-brainer win for the Penguins.
Series Slow Jam
“Shut It Down” by Drake featuring The Dream.
“It” in this case being Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
Swipe left on... Bylsma. His ability to prepare a team for a big series and make the necessary adjustments within that series is rightfully being questioned by those inside and outside the Pittsburgh hockey community.
Swipe right on... Boone Jenner. The Jackets rookie has six points in his last five games and if his nerves don’t get the better of him this might be a spot for him to break out.
Blue Jackets in six. Yep. Probably speaking with my heart than my head here, and probably expecting doom for Fleury that won’t befall him; but a gritty team with an outstanding goalie that knows it has a chance to out its franchise on the map with a series victory, with the added motivation of defending their house from invading Pittsburgh fans? That’s a recipe for an upset.