Three Keys: Blue Jackets vs. Penguins
It’s no secret: the Penguins have some of the most talented and dynamic players in the NHL. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, Kris Letang on the back end…and not surprisingly, they own the league’s best power play unit, as well. The Blue Jackets haven’t lost games to Pittsburgh this season due to poor defense, but they’ll need to find another gear defensively to match the Penguins’ intensity. This is when you look to guys like Brandon Dubinsky, Derek MacKenzie, Blake Comeau, Matt Calvert and others to embody the Jackets’ “in your face” style of hockey, and try to get the Penguins’ stars off their game. That being said, one of Columbus’ best forms of defense is going to be keeping the puck in the Pittsburgh zone. If they can do that and generate some chances, they’ll be off to a good start in the series.
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Did we just mention that the Penguins own the best power play unit the league? Oh yes, we most certainly did. Their 23.4 percent conversion rate is tied for the best in the NHL with the Washington Capitals, and on home ice, Pittsburgh’s power play is second-best at 23.5 percent (only the Toronto Maple Leafs were better during the regular season). The Blue Jackets, who saw their penalty kill get stronger as the season went along, don’t want to start a parade to the box and get themselves behind the eight-ball early; as recently as Friday night in Tampa, a string of penalties cost the Jackets a chance at two points when they took three straight minors early in the second period.
Columbus, a team that likes to play on the edge, will need to be cognizant of heightened awareness during the playoffs and play a smart-yet-tenacious game. That’s how they got to the postseason, and if they’re going to be successful in the tournament, that’s how they must continue to play.
This is quite the match-up between the pipes. Marc-Andre Fleury, a Stanley Cup winner in 2009 and one of the top goalies in the NHL over the past few years, will get the call for the Penguins as they look to win their second Stanley Cup in five years. At the other end is Sergei Bobrovsky, cast off from the Philadelphia Flyers in 2012 and a guy who resoundingly resurrected his career in Columbus while winning the Vezina Trophy last season.
One could say that Bobrovsky isn’t exactly playoff-tested, but he’s played in a number of big games for the Blue Jackets in his two seasons in Columbus, starting nearly every game as they tied for the final spot in the Western Conference last season and earned the No. 1 wild card spot this year. For Columbus, Bobrovsky has been the backbone: he went 21-11-6 in 2012-13 with a 2.00 goals-against average and .932 save percentage (starting 38 of 48 games), and this season, he posted a career-high 32 wins while going 32-20-5 with five shutouts in 58 games. Bobrovsky, still just 25 years old, has averaged a .928 save percentage in 82 games over the past two seasons and his five shutouts this season were fourth-most in the NHL.