Blue Jackets vs. Penguins: Preview and Prediction for NHL Playoffs 2014 Matchup
The Pittsburgh Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets meet in first-round playoff action this spring. The two cities are just three hours from each other, but worlds apart in hockey terms.
Columbus made the playoffs for only the second time in their 13-year history. They have played four playoff games in their entire existence, losing all four. The Penguins have three Stanley Cup victories, most recently in 2009.
Pittsburgh is the famous team, but are they better than Columbus? Here's a breakdown of the two teams and the predicted winner.
Pittsburgh's season: 82 GP, 51-24-7, first place in the Metropolitan Division
Sidney Crosby led the NHL in scoring and is the best player in the game. The Pittsburgh Penguins boast five 20-goal scorers and are among the league's best in goal differential. Pittsburgh is a veteran team built for a deep run in the playoffs.
Columbus' season: 82 GP, 43-32-7, fourth place in the Metropolitan Division
Ryan Johansen led the Blue Jackets offensively and finished in a tie for 11th in goals with 33. The big story for Columbus this season was Sergei Bobrovsky, one of the best goalies in the game. The highlight came after the end of February, when they closed in on a playoff spot and finally secured it.
Nerves: Marc-Andre Fleury had a good year, but right at the end of the regular season the old worries returned. A goal by Philadelphia's Mark Streit has Penguins had fans worried about their goaltending again this spring.
Don't Underestimate an Underdog: The Pittsburgh Penguins are a famous team, with the most famous player in the game as their leader. The Columbus Blue Jackets are a no-name club about to play the fifth playoff game in their history. It sounds like a David-versus-Goliath series, but it's much closer based on the numbers. Pittsburgh has a better goal differential, but Columbus is a slightly better possession team.
Bylsma Under Pressure: Dan Bylsma led the Penguins to the Stanley Cup shortly after taking over the coaching job in 2009. Since then, the Penguins haven't made it to the final. If the club exits quickly this spring, Bylsma's future could be in doubt.
Players to Watch
Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins: The man who saved the franchise has only one Stanley Cup ring. He's certainly worthy of many more, but injuries and lack of depth have kept the team from reaching the final. Crosby is healthy this spring and on top of his game.
James Wisniewski, Columbus Blue Jackets: The veteran is an outstanding power-play quarterback, and leads a group of puck-moving defensemen on the blue line. Jack Johnson, Ryan Murray and Fedor Tyutin can also handle the puck, making Columbus an effective transition team.
Columbus: The Blue Jackets have a top-quality goaltender in Sergei Bobrovsky. He is among the best in the game and has won over 30 contests with the team this season. Entering the playoff series against Pittsburgh, Columbus has the edge in goal.
Pittsburgh: Marc-Andre Fleury is not among the league's 10 best goaltenders. Fleury's past, which includes some major disappointments in the playoffs, has to be on the mind of fans and management. The Penguins recalled Tomas Vokoun on Monday, and Fleury's performance will likely be closely monitored as the playoffs begin. Fleury will be replaced if he struggles.
Pittsburgh: The Penguins are a strong team. Their forwards include impact centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, along with wingers James Neal, Chris Kunitz and Jussi Jokinen. However, they don't have a great deal of depth in the group. The addition of Lee Stempniak at the deadline helped the problem, but Pittsburgh has only five forwards who posted more than 29 points this season.
Columbus: The Blue Jackets aren't well-known outside small pockets of Ohio. Ryan Johansen is an emerging talent and Nathan Horton is a famous free-agent addition, with several secondary scorers on the team. The Blue Jackets have eight forwards—plus Horton—who scored 29 or more points this year. Columbus has some injury worries, but should be able to overcome them because of their depth.
Pittsburgh Will Win If...
The key for the Pittsburgh Penguins is Sidney Crosby. He's the best player in the NHL and can impact a game in all areas. His performance will be enough to win, provided the goaltending and lack of forward depth doesn't overwhelm their chances.
With that in mind, remember Tomas Vokoun and his recall Monday. It could be an important detail in this series.
Columbus Will Win If...
The key for the Columbus Blue Jackets is Sergei Bobrovsky. He'll have to play at a very high level in order for Columbus to win.
The Blue Jackets are a better possession team and have greater depth at forward and defense. If Columbus wins this series, no one should be surprised.
The impact of Sidney Crosby cannot be overstated—he's an elite two-way center and Columbus won't have an answer for him. Is one player capable of winning a series single-handedly?
The Blue Jackets are a much better team than many are giving them for credit for, but they're also an inexperienced group taking on a very strong, veteran team. Their depth is a strong point, and they have a clear edge in goal.
This is not an easy series to call.
Prediction: Pittsburgh in seven.