For the second time in four years, the Pittsburgh Penguins will play the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. They last played in the 2014 playoffs when the Penguins beat the Blue Jackets in six games before losing to the New York Rangers in seven games the following round. Pittsburgh enters the playoffs playing good despite the absence of Kris Letang, while the Blue Jackets are entering the playoffs cold as they’ve lost six out of their last seven games.
Pittsburgh Penguins vs Columbus Blue Jackets First Round Series Preview
One of the biggest stories headed into this series is goaltending and how each goaltender will play, as both Sergei Bobrovsky and Matt Murray have been outstanding this year.
In Columbus, Sergei Bobrovsky is the leading candidate for the Vezina Trophy and will most likely win it as he went 41-17-5 this season with a .931 save percentage, and added seven shutouts to bolster his case. He played outstanding at home against the Penguins in both games as he only allowed two goals combined. However, on the road it was a different story. He allowed eight goals in two games at PPG Paints Arena this year, and had a sub-.900 save percentage in both of those games. In his last four games there, his save percentage is a combined .882. Bobrovsky is going to have to be play better there if the Jackets want to steal home ice during the first two games.
For Pittsburgh, Matt Murray has been entrenched as the number one goaltender during most of the season and will get the nod after an amazing rookie campaign. He may not have had near the season that Bobrovsky had, but Murray went 32-10-4 this season with a .923 save percentage. He had a rough stretch a couple weeks back, but he has found his form before the playoffs.
This is one of the better goaltending match-ups in the first round and whichever goaltender gets hot will go a long way for their respective team.
Special Teams Play
Special teams could also play a big factor in this series as both the Blue Jackets and the Penguins have two of the top powerplays in the NHL when they’re rolling.
The Penguins powerplay was ranked third in the NHL this season with a 23.1% efficiency, only behind Toronto and Buffalo. Despite Kris Letang missing 41 games, and now being out for the playoffs, Justin Schultz filled in admirably on the top powerplay, and Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin also were outstanding on that unit.
The home and road split on the powerplay is a bit concerning for the Penguins though, as they were third at home on the powerplay but just 13th on the road, which is closer to average. That has to do with the Penguins mediocre road record this year of 19-15-7 while also posting the second best home record in the league at 31-6-4. They’ll need it to be both good at home and on the road.
For Columbus, their powerplay started out red hot this season and on their 16-game winning streak as they had the number one powerplay in the league during that stretch. It ended up staying as a top unit for most of the season up until the team failed to score in 20 straight powerplay opportunities and, in turn, it fell out of the top 10 in the league. Columbus will be getting back top defenseman Zach Werenski for the playoffs though, and he is one of the biggest reason as to why the powerplay was so good for most of the season.
The Blue Jackets will be going up against a Penguins penalty kill that wasn’t nearly as good as last season but started to do a lot better as the season came to a close. It finished 20th in the league, so the Jackets will definitely want to try and expose that during this series and help tilt the special teams in their favor. Not taking penalties for either team is going to be crucial in this series.
Scoring first usually isn’t a big talking point for a series, but it could matter a lot in this series. Columbus scored first the second most times in the NHL this season, only behind Washington. In the four games that these teams played in the regular season, the team who scored first won each game. That’s a lot different from the playoff series of two years ago when the team who scored first lost five of the six games in the series.
There is a way that scoring first may not matter as much during this series and that’s because the Penguins have the speed and the talent to beat Columbus off their mark. Pittsburgh used their speed game all throughout the playoffs last year and it worked to perfection as no team could keep up with them, even if the opposing team scored first.
It will be up to the Blue Jackets to get off the mark first and slow down the high-paced tempo the Penguins like to play at. If the defensive corps of Columbus can keep a tight lid on the likes of Malkin and Crosby, that should not be an issue for what is surely a very strong and physical Columbus squad.
Both teams will want to jump out of the gate very quickly on Wednesday and in each game as scoring first in this series could prove to be pivotal.
The Penguins, even without Kris Letang in the lineup, are still a very dangerous team with Crosby and Malkin heading into the playoffs. While it should be expected Sergei Bobrovsky that could steal a couple of games in this series, the Penguins will advance to the second round. It could, however, come at a cost with how physical this series is surely going to be.
Penguins in six.
Here are the other predictions from members of the Last Word on Hockey team:
Ben Kerr: Columbus in six
Markus Meyer: Pittsburgh in seven
Patrick Dejbjerg: Pittsburgh in seven
Sean Merz: Columbus in seven
David Elisio: Pittsburgh in six
Kyle Cushman: Pittsburgh in seven
Griffin Schroeder: Columbus in six
Charlie O’Connor Clarke: Pittsburgh in six
Graham Anderson: Columbus in seven
Rachel Halliwell: Pittsburgh in five
Nic Hendrickson: Columbus in six
Spencer Lussier: Pittsburgh in six
Jake Howorth: Pittsburgh in five
Kenneth Stapon: Pittsburgh in six
Brandon Piller: Pittsburgh in six