The Pittsburgh Penguins (51-24-7) begin another post-season as Eastern Conference power-houses, taking on a Columbus Blue Jackets (43-32-7) squad that is in the post-season for the second time in franchise history.
#2 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. #7 Columbus Blue Jackets
Season Series: Pittsburgh 5-0-0
Once again, the Penguins finish among the top teams in the Eastern Conference, and the veteran core of players and coaching staff looks poised for another run.
The Penguins’ offensive abilities are virtually limitless, led by the NHL’s top scorer and Art Ross winner, captain Sidney Crosby. Crosby’s 104 points was 17 over his nearest competitor. The Pens’ offense is ranked 5th in the NHL, with a Goals/Game average of 2.95. The Pens’ offense has been shelled with injuries, including Crosby’s line-mate Pascal Dupuis suffering a season-ending setback just after the New Year. All-world winger Evgeni Malkin hasn’t played since March 23rd, but reports suggest the Penguins’ second-leading scorer will be good to go for Game One of the series.
The stacked lineup continues on the blue-line, with U.S. Olympian Brooks Orpik, Matt Niskanen, and rookie Olli Maatta holding the fort, as the Pens’ best defenseman, Kris Letang, is just returning from a stroke suffered before the Olympic break. Letang was limited to 37 games this season due to the injury, but has returned to 100% health, playing the final games of the teams’ regular season. Niskanen had a surprising season, finishing 1st in plus/minus among all NHL defenseman, with a +33 rating. Maatta was a workhorse all season, sometimes even underrated in his first NHL campaign, with 29 points and a +8 rating.
The Penguins will ride Marc-Andre Fleury into the playoffs, and with Tomas Vokoun returning from injury, the tandem that took them to the Eastern Conference Final one season ago is reunited. Fleury was only one game behind NHL leader Kari Lehtonen with 64 games played this season, and also finished second in wins, with 39. During training camp in September, it became apparent that Vokoun had suffered a blood clot, one that could potentially be career-ending. After missing action for 6 months, Vokoun returned to the crease last week with the Penguins’ AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre Scranton, and was activated onto Pittsburgh’s roster after the completion of the regular season. Jeff Zatkoff will remain with the club, after posting a 12-6-2 record in 20 games this season.
Pittsburgh has made the playoffs every year since 2007, and has kept much of the same core throughout those seasons. Dan Bylsma has experienced some of the best post-season success of any active NHL coach, and with a chiseled group enriched with youth in players such as Maata, the Penguins look as dangerous a team as ever. The Pens’ power-play unit is the most efficient in the entire NHL, at a 23.4% pace, while the penalty kill ranks in 5th at 85%.
Backstop: Marc-Andre Fleury (39-18-5, .915% save percentage, 2.37 GAA) will be the undisputed starter for the beginning of the Penguins’ playoff run, after a ‘career year’ in the regular season.
X-Factor: “The Flower”. Marc-Andre Fleury folded during the second round of the 2013 playoffs, and Tomas Vokoun had to pick up the pieces, taking the Pens to the Eastern Conference Final. With Vokoun yet to play an NHL game this season, can Fleury re-gain the consistency he had in the Pens’ 2009 Cup run?
After missing the playoffs by one point on the final day of the regular season in 2013, the Blue Jackets came back in the fall with a re-tooled roster, and a work ethic unmatched by any team in the league, earning themselves the clubs’ second post-season since their inception in 2000.
The Jackets ride behind Ryan Johansen on offense, as the 21-year old has exploded in 2014, with an easy career-high 63 points. 2013 acquisition Brandon Dubinsky has become the clubs’ certain first-line center. With depth in rookies Boone Jenner, Cam Atkinson, and Matt Calvert, the Jackets’ superstar-less lineup has shocked some of the league’s top teams this season. At 2.71 goals/game, the Jackets’ offense is ranked 12th league-wide, something many thought impossible after losing snipers Rick Nash and Marian Gaborik in the past 13 months.
Columbus features a veteran leadership on defense, starting with Stanley Cup champion, and team captain, Nathan Horton. Horton was sidelined for the Jackets’ first 46 games of the regular season after off-season surgery, but returned for the final 36 games, recording 19 points in that time. James Wisniewski and Jack Johnson round out the top three blue-liners on the Jackets’ roster, which also includes young guns in Corey Tropp, David Savard, and rookie Dalton Prout.
The Jackets’ goaltending tandem is among the most underrated in the league, even though their starting goaltender took home some top hardware last season. Sergei Bobrovsky, 2013 Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky backed up last season’s play with another solid campaign, ranking in the top 10 in GAA and recording four shutouts, despite missing over a month with injury. 30-year old Curtis McElhinney experienced the best season of his career at back-up, with a 2.70 GAA in 28 appearances, including a starting role during Bobrovsky’s injury.
After being buried in the powerhouse Central Division for 13 years, the Jackets took advantage of a weaker Eastern Conference, and earned their first playoff berth since the 2009 season. The Blue Jackets were swept in their only previous playoff series, 4-0 to the Detroit Red Wings, who the Penguins went on to defeat to win the Stanley Cup. The Jackets’ fiery style has impressed many, and they have proved to play tough against teams with much more talent and depth than themselves.
Backstop: Sergei Bobrovsky (32-20-5, .923% save percentage, 2.38 GAA) will shoulder the load of his second playoff series, with 7 playoff games under his belt with the Philadephia Flyers.
X-Factor: Blue Jackets’ defense. Can the young guns hold their own against a four-line Penguins’ attack, or will Wisniewski, Johnson, and Horton have to play big minutes to control their opponents’ offense?
Prediction Sure To Go Wrong:
The Penguins have a chip on their shoulder after being swept so easily by the Bruins in 2013, and they are dead-set on making it to the Final again. Pittsburgh wins the series in Game 5, with Brandon Sutter scoring the series-clinching goal.
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