If you believe that talent reigns supreme in the NHL playoffs, then you didn't have a tough time filling out your bracket when you had to choose between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets. The former is riding into the postseason on the back of three consecutive 100-point seasons.
The latter? Well, the Blue Jackets have never had a 100-point campaign. Nor have they ever rostered a player who broke the 100-point barrier as an individual—or challenged for the Hart Trophy, Norris Trophy, Jack Adams Trophy or any other awards.
On paper this is Sidney Crosby against Ryan Johansen. It's Evgeni Malkin squaring off with Artem Anisimov. Cam Atkinson trying to outscore James Neal. It's the Blue Jackets trying to beat the Penguins for just the second time in regulation since No. 87's rookie season.
The domination runs even deeper than that. When NHL.com revealed its preview of this matchup, it noted a startling fact about the season series between the two teams: "They played each other five times and five times Pittsburgh emerged victorious, trailing for 56 seconds in the 300 minutes of the series."
Fifty-six seconds of hope. It seems like that's all Columbus has in Round 1. The Penguins can't lean on the regular season and look beyond this determined Blue Jackets team, though, and there are a variety of reasons for that.
For instance, Pittsburgh might have defeated Columbus five straight times this season, but Sergei Bobrovsky wasn't in net for any of those contests. The Jackets might only have one of the top-five most talented players in this series, but "Bob" is the guy who would crack that list.
Given Marc-Andre Fleury's recent playoff history, there's reason to be nervous about the goaltending matchup. Bobrovsky is a bit of an unknown factor in terms of postseason play, but he was outstanding down the stretch for Columbus and helped it win several key games that maybe it shouldn't have.
What happens when "Flower" gives up his first soft goal? It happens in the playoffs, and it will happen in this series. Maybe a 60-foot blast from James Wisniewski or Jack Johnson. How he responds in that moment could very well determine the outcome.
Columbus also plays a style that could frustrate Pittsburgh. The Penguins are in their element when they're allowed to skate and move the puck up ice through the neutral zone without much contact. They won't be getting a lot of space against the Blue Jackets.
They play a tough, fast brand of hockey and like to get in deep on the forecheck. It could be a situation similar to the one that forced the Penguins out of the Eastern Conference Final last year. The Boston Bruins managed to irritate Pittsburgh's top players to the point where they weren't effective. The Jackets aren't the Bruins, but they are deceptively fast and physical.
It can also be argued that Columbus has a bit more scoring depth than the Penguins. While Crosby and Malkin obviously stand heads and toes above the next best forward in the series, the Blue Jackets can roll four lines with the best of 'em.
Columbus' modus operandi is simple: Make short, quick plays up the boards and support the puck with zeal. None of the team's forwards are going to try to beat anyone one-on-one. They don't need to make those kinds of plays. Pittsburgh's forwards do, and that could be a cause for concern.
Could the Penguins go out and crush Bobrovsky in Game 1? Perhaps. Pittsburgh could potentially sweep the floor with these Blue Jackets, but there seems to be too much leadership and determination on the other side of the ice to allow that to happen.
This seems like a series that could go back and forth a bit, and the feeling is that the deeper it goes, the more it favors Columbus and its clutch goaltending/timely goal scoring.
The point has been belabored intensely since the meltdown in the ECF last season, but the key to this series is ultimately Fluery. There's no pressure on the Blue Jackets to do anything here. They're looking to win the first playoff game in franchise history, but jobs won't be lost if they drop out in Round 1.
Heads will roll in Pittsburgh if the Penguins bow out early.
Dan Bylsma could be fired. Fleury could be traded with one year remaining on his contract. It wouldn't be surprising to see wholesale changes across the board following another disappointing showing.
These are professionals, but these are the kinds of things that can be a distraction. In the last few days we've seen Brad Richards admit that the possibility of a buyout "consumed" him, via Larry Brooks of the New York Post. Henrik Lundqvist went on record and said that his ongoing contract negotiations disturbed his usual workflow this season. These are human beings who think about their jobs just like we do.
This could be the perfect storm for the Blue Jackets. Or the Penguins could score 20 goals in four games and charge on to the next round. Expecting to do so, however—and taking Columbus lightly—will almost certainly end with another shocking conclusion to Pittsburgh's postseason.
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