First-round preview: Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Columbus Blue Jackets

On May 22nd of last year, Tampa Bay Lightning winger Ondrej Palat retrieved the puck from the half-wall and moved it to Nikita Kucherov at the point. Kucherov waited for Bolts defenseman James Garrison to attack the open space and dive toward the top of the left circle. Kucherov proceeded to pass the puck around Patric Horvqvist and onto Garrison’s eager stick. Garrison received the pass, and snapped the puck into diminutive center Tyler Johnson’s backside and the puck caromed into the net.

The goal was scored on Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and it gave the Lightning a 3-2 series lead in the conference finals. Despite Matt Murray’s sterling play in helping Pittsburgh reach the conference finals, Fleury was not healthy and Murray had come off a rough Game 4. It was Fleury’s first game back since he had suffered a concussion in late March. Also, the Penguins’ defense was without Trevor Daley, who broke his ankle in Game 4, robbing the team of one of their biggest minute-loggers and most mobile defensemen.

This is ancient history now. The Penguins won Games 6 and 7. Pittsburgh soundly defeated San Jose in the Cup final, and Crosby and Malkin raised their second Cup. But there is an important lesson to be learned: The NHL playoffs are about survival. Almost every Cup winner faces elimination at some point, and possessing that learned trait of resilience in the face of adversity is crucial.

Crosby and Malkin have been at this for well over a decade. The loss of Kris Letang is unfortunate, but that kind of distress will apply to every team this postseason. The playoffs are determined by matchups, puck luck, and health. Pittsburgh has been challenged with the task of whether they can repeat, and their first-round opponent is a frisky and deep Columbus Blue Jackets team. So how does Columbus plan on stopping Crosby and Malkin?

The Seth Jones and Zach Werenski pairing and Jack Johnson-David Savard duo are going to be assigned the task of slowing down Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin’s line. Even though that is an incredibly tough assignment for a rookie and very young defenseman, Jones and Werenski are far more suited to the task due to their skating and natural talent for making the first pass on breakouts. Nevertheless, there will be an impetus on the CBJ wingers and centers to sink low, win the individual board battles, and keep the shot attempts outside the home-plate area as much as possible. With Letang injured, the threat from the point is diminished, but at the same time Columbus should be wary of overloading on the puck because the Penguins are assassins at exposing gaps in space and exploiting seams in a defense.

Goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky could be a possible advantage for Columbus, but that strength dissolves if Pittsburgh is able to generate offense with unperturbed transition opportunities and retrieve without retribution. Blue Jackets center Brandon Dubinsky has been a good foil for Crosby in the past, using his nasty disposition and deceptive acceleration to infuriate the Pens’ superstar. Overall, the Blue Jackets should ramp up their physicality on Pittsburgh.

The Kings’ playoff style at its best entailed brutal bodychecks every time the opponent touched the puck. That came in the form of an oppressive forecheck and dedicated effort to protect the middle in defensive transition and in their own zone.

The Penguins are incredibly fast, and they use the neutral zone better than any team in their conference. Yet, the Blue Jackets are a better skating team than they are given credit for, so if they can stymie the shooting and skating lanes by deploying a checking line with speed (hello, William Karlsson) that could hamper Crosby and Pittsburgh’s offense. Even though the Blue Jackets were a top-ten offense this season (and they were above-average in the possession metrics), they should be trying to make this series a slog.

They won’t outscore the Penguins in a 5-4 game. They aren’t faster or more skilled. And there should be a kernel of hope that the Penguins are vulnerable to punishment considering the Blue Jackets do have fresher legs from not playing all the way into June last season. The accrued mileage from last season’s Cup run does matter.

Columbus needs to direct the pace. This means controlling the puck in the offensive zone with a voracious forecheck, enabling Jones and Werenski to participate as playmakers, supporting the puck in all three zones and, if trapped, putting the puck into a corner and creating a race or a board battle. The Blue Jackets could muck this up.

The Penguins’ blueprint is easier on the eyes. They have the skill to strike through pure, unrestrained brilliance. I’ve never seen a team utilize better structure and move the puck as quickly as they did during the playoffs last season. Their play in the one-on-one battles, and in retrieving the puck, was so prolific it reminded me of the 2012 Kings. It was cruel that the Sharks had to play them last season; they ran into a team that was perfectly coached and knew how to properly channel their wealth of talent.

But this Penguins team appears a bit meeker. Their execution on the defensive end can be sloppy. They are banged up. And yet it’s all relative. Their treasure chest is fully intact. Crosby and Malkin are certainly gifted enough to win a game individually, and there isn’t a defenseman on the Blue Jackets with enough influence to stem that.

For the Penguins, it’s about the complementary players as well. If one of the top players is hindered by the Blue Jackets trying to swallow him up with multiple, active defenders, Conor Sheary can find the open space and bury a shot. Patric Hornqvist remains a pain in the butt to deal with, and Nick Bonino can help facilitate the transition or on the cycle. Defenseman Justin Schultz can identify ample opportunity for him to exert his prodigious offensive ability. This team can pass, they can force turnovers, and they can shoot a lot.

While Blue Jackets winger Cam Atkinson’s 35 goals was a dream season, and Alexander Wennberg is a promising young center, those two are no match for the two Hall of Famers on the other side. There is a scenario where the Penguins are equaled from a talent standpoint and lose their ability to dictate the tempo. Columbus is not that team.

Penguins in five

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