It will be a contrast of historic proportions when the Columbus Blue Jackets square off against the Pittsburgh Penguins. It will be like a Ferrari against a Hummer as the slick Penguins bring their pedigree and lofty expectations against the upstart and disciplined Blue Jackets and their playoff inexperience as a group. Here is a series preview.
The Penguins swept the 5 game season series with their new divisional rival. They won 3 in Columbus and 2 back in Pittsburgh.
This will be the tipping point. Marc-Andre Fleury has been very underwhelming in his last two playoff seasons, including last year when he gave up 17 goals in less than 4 games in the first round against the Islanders last season. The Penguins were able to outscore the Islanders and move on, but Fleury was stapled to the bench after being pulled in game 4 in favor of Tomas Vokoun. His lack of clutch ability since the Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2009 has him at risk of being run out of town if he has a repeat performance.
On the other hand is Sergei Bobrovsky, who won the Vezina Trophy last season without being able to get into the playoffs. His numbers weren’t quite as stellar as they were last year, but still very solid. Bobrovsky has only appeared in 7 playoff games and in winless with a GAA north of 4 and a sub-.900 SP, all with the Flyers at a time when they were in defensive disarray.
The Penguins were hit hard by the injury bug, including some of their best defensemen. Kris Letang suffered a stroke in February and just recently returned to the lineup. Paul Martin was also held to just 39 games and Rob Scuderi was limited to 53. Out of the ashes of those injuries emerged a couple of studs in Matt Niskanen and Olli Maata who were the mainstays for the majority of the season. Niskanen was +33 while the next best defenseman was +8.
The Blue Jackets have a nice blend of youth and experience. James Wisniewski is a quality power play quarterback and had almost 30 points with the man advantage alone. Young Ryan Murray finally made his mark after injury troubles limited him past 2 season, and Jack Johnson is a solid impact defenseman.
Ryan Johansen had a breakthrough third season, leading the Blue Jackets in points. The big loss of Nathan Horton, with whose arrival from injury the Blue Jackets started their ascent in the standings, will hit hard as he is an experienced playoff performer who went to the finals with Boston last year.
The Penguins high-octane offense had a healthy Sidney Crosby for the full season for a change, but it was all of those around him that had trouble staying healthy. With the impending return of the likes of Evgeni Malkin scoring chances will not be an issue.
Pittsburgh rode outstanding special teams to overcome their many injuries. Their power play tied with Washington for the best in the league, while the PK was also in the top 5. As for Columbus, both of their special teams units were outside the top 10 in the league (PP- 11th, PK 14th)
- While the Pens swept the series, Bobrovsky was only in net for 1 of the 5 Blue Jackets losses.
- Fleury doesn’t have the safety net he had last year, Jeff Zatkoff is no Vokoun.
- The pressure is all on Pittsburgh, whose expected dynasty hasn’t exactly come to fruition. Fleury and coach Dan Bylsma will be feeling the heaviest burden, as will Crosby.
- The Blue Jackets have never won a playoff game, let alone a series. There are a lot of similarities in expectation between Columbus this year and the Islanders of last that put a scare into the heavily favored Penguins.
- The health and flow of the Penguins with the return of James Neal, Chris Kunitz, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang
The Blue Jackets will hang in tough, but in the end the Penguins simply have too much firepower and Fleury can’t be that bad in the clutch again, can he?
PENS in 6
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