Series Storylines: Penguins vs. Blue Jackets
Penguins vs. Flyers Round One Schedule:
Wednesday, April 11 - Philadelphia at PITTSBURGH - 7:30 p.m. - ROOT SPORTS
Friday, April 13 - Philadelphia at PITTSBURGH - 7:30 p.m. - ROOT SPORTS
Sunday, April 15 - Pittsburgh at Philadelphia - 3:00 p.m. - NBC
Wednesday, April 18 - Pittsburgh at Philadelphia - 7:30 p.m. - ROOT SPORTS
*Friday, April 20 - Philadelphia at PITTSBURGH - 7:30 p.m. - ROOT SPORTS
*Sunday, April 22 - Pittsburgh at Philadelphia - TBD - TBD
*Tuesday, April 24 - Tampa Bay at PITTSBURGH - TBD - TBD
#2 Pittsburgh Penguins
|VS|| #7 Columbus Blue Jackets
Pittsburgh and Columbus always had the potential to become rivals, with their relatively short distance to each other. According to Mapquest, Columbus is the closest geographical rival to Pittsburgh, as the distance between CONSOL Energy Center and Nationwide Arena is only 186.13 miles using the quickest suggested route – about a two-and-a-half to three-hour drive.
And after playing each other just 14 times in 13 years since Columbus entered the league back in 2000, that potential started to be realized this season when the two teams moved into the same division under the NHL’s new realignment plan. Now, it may come to fruition when they meet in the first round of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Here are a few of the main storylines to follow as the series progresses...
LET’S GET PHYSICAL
The Penguins swept their regular-season series with the Blue Jackets in 2013-14, going a perfect 5-0 against Columbus. Pittsburgh began by taking both games of the home-and-home series between the teams on Nov. 1 and 2, chasing starter Sergei Bobrovsky from the net in the first matchup (a 4-2 win at CONSOL Energy Center). They would not see Bobrovsky for the rest of the year due to injury and illness, facing backup Curtis McElhinney in the remaining four contests – beginning the following night when the Pens shut out the Blue Jackets, 3-0.
The rest of the games were all decided by one or two goals and the Penguins’ 5-0 record doesn’t tell the story of how close the games actually were. Penguins winger Beau Bennett, who scored the game-winner in Pittsburgh’s most recent meeting with Columbus (a hardfought 2-1 win on March 28) said his team’s regular-season success against the Blue Jackets means absolutely nothing when the postseason starts – as the Pens discovered the hard way last year. “I don’t think we should think about that at all,” he said. “We beat Boston three out of three times last year and then they swept us. I think we need to treat it as a new season series.”
That being said, it’s worth nothing that the biggest catalyst behind Pittsburgh’s success against Columbus this season was their special teams play. The Penguins went 5-for-19 (26.3 percent) with the man-advantage while killing off 13 of 14 Columbus power plays (92.9 percent).
Pittsburgh certainly has the advantage over Columbus when it comes to playoff experience. We’ll see if the battle-tested Penguins can use that to overwhelm this young, inexperienced Blue Jackets squad.
And when we say young, we mean young. The Blue Jackets are the most youthful team in the NHL with an average age of 26.1 (Pittsburgh is the fourth-oldest at 28.6). Their breakout star and best player, Ryan Johansen, is just 21 years old. He's joined by guys like Cam Atkinson (24), Boone Jenner (20), Ryan Murray (20) and of course Sergei Bobrovsky (25), who are all crucial members of their team.
And entering Game 1, the players on Pittsburgh’s roster have combined to play in 1,154 playoff games versus 251 for Columbus. The Blue Jackets are going to the playoffs for just the second time since they entered the league back in 2000, getting swept in the first round by Detroit in 2009 during their only other appearance.
To make it even tougher for the Blue Jackets, the limited postseason experience Columbus does have is sorely depleted going into the first round because of injuries. Their most valuable player in that regard, forward Nathan Horton – who advanced to the Stanley Cup Final in 2011 (winning the championship that year) and again last season as a member of the Boston Bruins, is out six weeks following abdominal surgery.
"It's a blow," Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards told the Columbus Dispatch. "The reason why it's a blow is the potential he has for us on the ice – a goal-scorer, big and strong up and down his wing, and the other thing is, he's played in big games, he's played in big moments. One of the reasons an organization like this goes out and gets a Nathan Horton is because of his experience, the things he's been through.”
The Jackets also may be without two more key veteran forwards, at least to start the first round. Plum native R.J. Umberger and Nick Foligno are both out indefinitely due to injury, and Richards said neither player may be ready for the beginning of playoffs.
Former Flyer Umberger was one of Philadelphia’s best skaters against Pittsburgh during the 2008 Eastern Conference Final, scoring once and totaling four points in the five-game series won by the Penguins. After being traded to Columbus the following season, he was again one of his team’s best skaters in their first-round sweep by Detroit, scoring three goals in four games. Overall, Umberger has 14 goals and five assists with a plus-4 rating in 26 NHL playoff games. Meanwhile, Foligno is the most familiar with the Penguins – having played them in two first-round matchups as a member of the Ottawa Senators in 2008 and ’10.
The guys left on the Blue Jackets roster will be going up against the team that won the Stanley Cup in 2009 and has become one of the mainstays of spring hockey, as this marks Pittsburgh’s eighth consecutive postseason.
This series should feature an exciting goaltending battle, as it will be 2009 Stanley Cup hero Marc-Andre Fleury versus reigning Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky.
Fleury enters the playoffs coming off yet another spectacular regular season, one of the finest of his career. But in sports, players aren’t judged on what they do in the regular season – it’s about how they perform in the postseason. That’s particularly true for Fleury, who’s had two rough springs with the Penguins.
During the 2013 playoffs, Fleury was replaced by Tomas Vokoun following Game 4 of their opening-round series against the New York Islanders and did not play the remainder of the playoffs. That came a year after Pittsburgh’s defense imploded during its opening-round matchup with Philadelphia in 2012, allowing 30 goals in six games – giving Fleury a .834 save percentage and 4.63 goals-against average.
But although Fleury’s numbers and results over the past two postseasons haven’t been up to his usual standards, that doesn’t mean he can’t regain his 2009 Cup-championship winning form. That was his goal coming into the season, and Fleury quietly worked on things he wanted to change and improve on these past few months – learned during his tough playoff experiences – to help him achieve it. We’ll see if it all pays off.
Fleury’s counterpart at the other end of the ice has been incredible backstopping this Columbus team and is the single biggest reason that they’re in the dance this year. Bobrovsky proved over the last two seasons that he’s not just a capable starting goaltender; he’s one of the best in the league. However, he still has a lot to prove when it comes to the playoffs. The 25-year-old has made just seven career playoff appearances, including three starts. The Penguins have seen him just once, when the Flyers knocked the Penguins out two years ago. He played 37 minutes in Game 4, allowing five goals on 18 shots.
And the Penguins haven’t seen Bobrovsky for months, as he played in just one of the five meetings between the teams this season. His lone appearance came on Nov. 1, when he allowed three goals on 13 shots and was pulled after just 23:01 minutes. And although Bobrovsky has had a rough go of it lately at CONSOL Energy Center, allowing seven goals while dropping his last two starts in the arena, he does own a 5-2 all-time regular-season mark in Pittsburgh dating back to his time with Philadelphia. We’ll see if his success in the Penguins’ home rink translates to the playoffs.
The Blue Jackets’ style of play seems to be tailor-made for the postseason. Columbus is a punishing, relentless team that competes every night, plays on the edge and prides itself on being tough to play against. As defenseman James Wisniewski put it, “we try to grind (teams) down so that by the third period, they just don’t want to play anymore.”
The work ethic is there every night as the Jackets play hard through all three zones. They’re physical throughout all four lines, finish their checks and and play with speed, and coach Dan Bylsma called them “one of the hardest-working, forechecking groups that goes to the net really hard.”
That was reflected statistically, as the Blue Jackets set a franchise record with more than 2,500 hits this season – led by agitating forward Brandon Dubinsky, who’s certainly had his share of skirmishes with Pittsburgh’s star players dating back to his time with the New York Rangers. So the Penguins, especially Sidney Crosby and potentially Evgeni Malkin, will have their work cut out for them against this Blue Jackets team – who are going to do everything they can to stop this talented Pittsburgh team. The question is, will the Penguins be able to battle through it?
It may not be conducive for them to fight fire with fire. Physicality is important, especially in the playoffs – but it’s more important for the Penguins to stick with their game plan and play the way that makes them successful. They can’t get sucked into trying to be a team that they’re not. For example, the Penguins outhit the Bruins by a wide margin in the Eastern Conference Final last year – and look where that got them. It’s not going to be easy. The amount of real estate on the ice drastically lessens when the playoffs start, and the Blue Jackets play a more tight-checking game than most. But the Penguins are going to have to figure out a way to play through that.
“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts” is a perfect description for the Blue Jackets’ roster. There isn’t a lot of star power in the Columbus locker room, but that’s okay – they’ve been just fine when it comes to putting the puck in the back of the net.
The Blue Jackets finished the season with seven players who scored at least 15 goals, scattered throughout their lineup. They are That forward depth could prove to be absolutely huge for them going into the Stanley Cup playoffs, where having third and fourth lines who can score is invaluable with how tight-checked a team’s best players are (for Columbus, that would be Ryan Johansen – who finished the season with a team-leading 33 goals). Pittsburgh’s blue line will have a challenge trying to defend a team that spreads the wealth and scores by committee like Columbus does.
Pittsburgh, in comparison, has five players who scored at least 20 goals – and they’re all in the top six. Those two lines seem virtually set depending on Evgeni Malkin’s status, but Pittsburgh’s bottom six, on the other hand, is the complete opposite.
Dan Bylsma’s third and fourth lines have yet to be determined, and the head coach said he will choose them based on their opponent and trying to get the most desirable matchup against Columbus. “We know with Columbus, we may be looking to have more rounded third and fourth lines and add speed and have the ability to maybe score looking at that matchup,” Bylsma said after Sunday’s regular-season finale. “We’ll see. We have two days here and we’ll see who can get healthy and who’s going to be in that mix.”
Injuries are a crucial factor in the coaches' decisions. We’ve seen a lot of different guys slot in the bottom six over the last couple of weeks because of them: Tanner Glass, Brandon Sutter, Jayson Megna, Lee Stempniak, Craig Adams, Taylor Pyatt, Deryk Engelland, Harry Zolniercyzk, and Chuck Kobasew, to name a few. That doesn’t include Brian Gibbons and Jussi Jokinen, who were playing on the second line with Malkin out but could move down the depth chart depending on his return. Or Joe Vitale, who’s also been sidelined with a mid-body injury but has been skating on his own with Malkin and is one of the fastest guys on the Penguins roster. He certainly brings that speed Bylsma mentioned, and if he's healthy, could get the call.
Every team wants depth, but having the world’s best player carrying your team’s offense is pretty desirable as well.
Captain Sidney Crosby won his second career Art Ross Trophy after finishing as the NHL’s regular-season scoring champion with 104 points – 17 more than second-place Ryan Getzlaf of the Anaheim Ducks. He’s the leading candidate to win the Hart Trophy as league MVP and enters the playoffs hungry, healthy and rested.
In addition, Crosby has been dominant against the Blue Jackets in his career. He is Pittsburgh’s all-time leading regular-season point producer against Columbus with 17 points in 11 games and has at least a point in 10 straight against the Blue Jackets.
However, the Penguins are uncertain about the status of their other superstar center going into the playoffs. Evgeni Malkin missed the last 11 games of the season with a foot injury sustained on his first shift of the Penguins’ 1-0 loss to St. Louis on March 23. He has been skating on his own with strength and conditioning coach Mike Kadar (and joined the team’s optional morning skate on Sunday), but head coach Dan Bylsma said he did not have a definitive answer regarding Malkin’s availability for Game 1.
When Columbus Blue Jackets head coach Todd Richards earned his first job as a bench boss with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in 2006, he did so with a young assistant coach named Dan Bylsma – who was just three years removed from his playing days. Their two years together proved successful, as WBS won 98 regular-season games and advanced all the way to the 2008 Calder Cup Final.
Fast forward eight years after they first teamed up, and the two friends will now meet as enemies in the first round of the 2014 playoffs.
Bylsma and Richards have met nine times in the regular season. Richards won the first three games, all while he was head coach of the Minnesota Wild from 2009-11. Bylsma has held the upper hand recently, winning all six games since Richards moved to Columbus. Game 1 will mark Richards’ postseason debut as an NHL head coach while Bylsma is making his sixth playoff appearance, having already won a Stanley Cup in 2009 and having established a Penguins’ franchise postseason record with 36 wins.
Earlier this year, Bylsma and Richards were able to team up once again – this time with Team USA at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Bylsma talked earlier this season about Richards’ influence on him as a bench boss, saying “My first four years of coaching, two of them were with Todd. I learned an awful lot in all of those years. I learned a lot about the game and coaching from Todd. There are some similarities. Similar words in the same dressing room. Frankly, I copied a lot from Todd. I think players will see similarities. Our team will see similarities.” It'll be interesting to see how the two coaches work against each other in the postseason.
Notes from the Penguins' communications department were used in this feature.