The Pittsburgh Penguins finished with 111 points in the 2016-17 regular season. That would have been enough to win every division but the one they play in, the Metropolitan. The Columbus Blue Jackets had 108 points. They would have won two of the other divisions with that total but finished third in the Metropolitan. Point being: These two teams are good enough to be playing in the Eastern Conference Finals against one another, but one will be eliminated in the first round.
Columbus Blue Jackets at Pittsburgh Penguins, Game 1
Columbus Blue Jackets
It’s only the third all-time playoff appearance for Columbus (50-24-8) and the franchise’s first since 2014. They have yet to win a playoff series. The Jackets had the second-best goal differential in the conference at plus-54. They also had a 16-game winning streak earlier this season, which was snapped on Jan. 5 at Presidents’ Trophy-winning Washington. It was one shy of tying the league record.
Columbus is an anonymous bunch, but they do almost everything well. The Jackets were sixth in scoring at 3.0 goals per game and 12th on the power play at 19.9 per cent. Right wing Cam Atkinson led the team with 35 goals and 62 points. The Jackets had eight players score at least 41 points. The team did struggle down the stretch in losing eight of its final 11. Columbus ended a six-game skid with a win in Toronto on Sunday, which forced the Leafs to have to play the top-seeded Capitals in the first round.
Sergei Bobrovsky is one of the top goaltenders in the league and probably wins a second Vezina Trophy after leading the NHL in goals-against average (2.06) and save percentage (.932) while ranking third in wins. Columbus was No. 2 in GAA (2.4 gpg) and ninth on the penalty kill (82.5 percent).
Defenceman Zach Werenski is expected to play in Game 1 after not playing since April 1 because of an upper-body injury. Werenski won’t win the Calder Trophy, but he led all rookie defencemen with 47 points (11 goals, 36 assists).
Columbus will try and make this an ugly series as the Penguins are vastly superior in overall forward talent. Scoring first likely will be key as Columbus was 28-8-1 this year when leading after the first period. It was 2-1-1 vs. Pittsburgh. Brandon Dubinsky, who has a bit of an unfriendly past with Pens star Sidney Crosby, led Columbus with six points vs. the Penguins. Bobrovsky was 2-1-1 with a 2.46 GAA and .920 save percentage.
Columbus is +450 to win the Eastern Conference.
Pittsburgh (50-21-11) is looking to become the first team to repeat as Stanley Cup champion since the Detroit Red Wings in 1998. It’s the 11th straight season the Penguins are in the playoffs, the longest current streak in the NHL.
Everything with the Penguins starts with Crosby. He won a second career Rocket Richard Trophy this season with a league-leading 44 goals. He might win another Hart Trophy as well, finishing second in points (89) to his likely top competition for that award, Edmonton’s Connor McDavid (100). Pittsburgh led the NHL in scoring (3.4 gpg) and was third on the power player (23.1 percent).
Injuries have played a big role on this team this season. Kris Letang, one of the best blueliners in the league, is out for the year due to neck surgery. He hadn’t played since Feb. 21 and had five goals and 29 assists in 41 games. Last year in the Cup run, he had three goals and 12 assists in the playoffs and was plus-6 in nearly 29 minutes per game. Fellow defenseman Olli Maatta hadn’t played since mid-February due to hand surgery but was in the regular-season finale. Center Evgeni Malkin hasn’t played since March 17 with an upper-body injury but is expected for Game 1. He had 33 goals and 39 assists in 62 games. Left wingers Carl Hagelin (lower body) and Chris Kunitz (lower body) are dealing with injuries as well and questionable for Game 1.
As noted above, both teams were 2-1-1 against one another this season. They last played on April 4 in Pittsburgh and the Pens won 4-1. Crosby had a goal and two assists in the three games. Matt Murray was 2-1-1 with a 3.16 goals-against average and .909 save percentage vs. Columbus.
The Penguins are +350 second-favourites to win the East.
Blue Jackets vs. Penguins Predictions
Pittsburgh has the clear advantage in postseason experience and on offence. However, the Jackets appear much stronger in net with Bobrovsky, although Bobrovsky has an .890 save percentage in 13 career postseason games and Murray was great in last year’s playoffs in going 15-6 with a 2.08 GAA and .923 save percentage. I’ll stick with experience. Pittsburgh wins in six and advances to face Washington.