It is unlike any other playoffs in all of sports. Whether you’re casually shifting your focus to spring hockey or you’ve been hanging on every face-off since before Halloween, the road to the Stanley Cup Finals is one of the most nail-biting, heart-palpitating events in all of sports.
The most intriguing of the first round series in the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs is happening in the heart of the Midwest. The reigning and defending 2016 Stanley Cup Champions Pittsburgh Penguins with their elite top-6 forwards take on the upstart out of nowhere Columbus Blue Jackets who have improved 32 points from last season and are looking to continue their surprising run against the Penguins.
Despite Columbus closing their season on a 3-6-1 stretch in their last 10 games they’ve put up franchise records in wins (50) and points (108) and undoubtedly are a much deeper and experienced team when compared to the franchises two previous playoff appearances in 2008-2009 and 2013-2014.
The franchise records for Columbus now mean nothing though. If they want to win and compete in this series they will have to play a disciplined and physical brand of hockey and most importantly they will have to find a way to contain the three headed monster that is Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel. Here’s everything you need to know to get ready for game one on Wednesday Night.
Defense: Advantage Columbus
The Penguins are without their stud defenseman Kris Letang who is out 4-6 months with a herniated disk. Letang is a great two-way player who tallied 5-29-34 this year in 41 games for the Penguins and was a +2. Letang was a top defenseman for the Penguins on their two Stanley Cup runs putting up 4-9-13 in 23 games and +5 in the 2009 championship season and 3-12-15 in 23 games with a +6 in last years run. The last time the Penguins played a playoff series without Kris Letang was in the 2014-2015 where they were quickly dismissed by the New York Rangers in 5 games. This is a Penguins team that needs Kris Letang, He is the glue that holds their blue line together. For this reason and the defensive depth that Columbus possesses with the pairs of Zach Werenski and Seth Jones along with David Savard and Jack Johnson and along with the trade deadline addition of Kyle Quincey and Ryan Murray expected to return, I give Columbus the edge on the blueline.
Forwards: Advantage Pittsburgh
The Penguins have arguably three of the best forwards in the world. Sidney Crosby is shaking off his concussion issues and back scoring goals, 44 of them to be exact which leads the league. Phil Kessel isn’t tired of it anymore. He’s now in Pittsburgh winning cups and putting up huge numbers for the Penguins 23-47-70 this year, as well as eight power play goals. With Evgeni Malkin returning for game one of this series and Carl Hagelin possibly returning in this series, potentially reuniting the Hagelin-Bonino-Kessel line that was so deadly in last year’s run to the cup, Pittsburgh has a distinct advantage at forward.
Goaltending: Slight Advantage Pittsburgh
I know, I know, Sergei Bobrovsky had a much better statistical regular season than Matt Murray. Bob put up a .931 save percentage and a 2.06 GAA both of which led the NHL in addition to 41 wins which put him one away from the league lead there too. However, Sergei has never performed in the playoffs, holding just a 2-6 record with an .890 save percentage and a 3.49 GAA. Blue Jackets head coach spoke to how confident he is in Bobrovsky to come out and perform in this playoff series saying that “He know’s how good he (Bobrovsky) is going to be” and adding that he “doesn’t have a question in his mind about how good Bob is going to be” I take this with a grain of salt, until I see it from Bobrovsky Matt Murray and his experience winning a cup for Pittsburgh last year has a slight advantage over Columbus.
Special Teams: Slight Advantage Columbus
There was a time during the middle of the season where the Blue Jackets power play was unstoppable. There was a period where if Columbus was going on the powerplay their opponent better start saying their hail marys but times have changed, a 5/38 (13.2%) for the Jackets during their last 20 games of the regular season dropped them all the way to 12th in the league in power play percentage. Pittsburgh on the other hand is heading in the right direction with their man advantage unit going 15/55 (27.3%) during the same span. Pittsburgh is going to inevitably score some power play goals with the potent power play line of Malkin-Crosby-Kessel on the ice but the Columbus power play unit has shown that they can be one of the best in the league. I expect them to take advantage of a Penguins team that ranks 20th in penalty kill percentage at 79.8% and was playing below that percentage on the penalty kill the last 20 games of the season at 78.4% despite the trade deadline addition of defenseman Ron Hainsey. Columbus makes their power play great again while weathering Pittsburgh’s slight advantage Columbus.
The Pick: Columbus in 7
Pittsburgh’s stars will get their goals, there’s not much that anyone can do about it but I’ll take Columbus’ bottom six forwards (Hartnell, Gagner, Bjorkstrand, Calvert, Karlsson and Anderson) over Pittsburgh’s bottom six any day of the week (Wilson, Bonino, Hornqvist, Kuhnackl, Cullen and Rowney). The absence of Kris Letang will also hurt the Pens, much like it did in the 2015 playoff series. If Bobrovsky can go out there and avoid bombing, which is a more than distinct possibility from this year’s Vezina trophy favorite Columbus will get it done. Columbus gets their first playoff series win in franchise history in seven games.