Stanley Cup Playoff Preview - Pittsburgh vs. Columbus
By Dan Di Sciullo, NHL Editor
REGULAR SEASON RECORD: 51-24-7 (2nd seed, East)
2013 PLAYOFFS: Defeated NY Islanders 4-2 in conference quarterfinals, defeated Ottawa 4-1 in conference semifinals, lost to Boston 4-0 in conference finals
(SportsNetwork.com) - Pittsburgh cruised to a division title this season, taking the Metropolitan with 109 points -- 13 more than the second-place New York Rangers.
Even more impressive, the Penguins managed to dominate the Metro despite playing long stretches of the season without some key players. Fortunately, superstar captain Sidney Crosby managed to avoid the injury list and turned in a season worthy of his second Hart Trophy.
Crosby only missed two games and both of those absences were interest of getting the centerman rest during the final week of the season. His league- leading 104 points came via 36 goals and an NHL-best 68 assists and Crosby finished 17 points ahead of Anaheim's Ryan Getzlaf for the scoring title.
While Crosby is a big favorite for the Hart, what he's really after is a second Stanley Cup title to go with his two Olympic gold medals for Team Canada. However, Crosby and the Pens haven't made it back to the Cup Finals since winning it all in 2009, and the club's only trip to the conference finals over the last four years came last spring when Boston swept Pittsburgh to win the East.
It should come as no surprise that Crosby has been extremely productive in the postseason over the years, notching 105 points (40 goals, 65 assists) in 82 games. Evgeni Malkin isn't far behind with 97 points (36g, 61a) in 83 postseason games, but Crosby's fellow star centerman may not be ready to go for Game 1 of the playoffs.
Malkin sat out the final 11 games of the regular season with a sprained foot. The 27-year-old Russian has been skating on his own in an effort to get back for the opening round of the playoffs, but Malkin's status for start of this series is uncertain.
Including Crosby and Malkin, who had 23 goals in 60 games, the Penguins had five players reach 20 goals in 2013-14. Chris Kunitz had 35 markers, James Neal added 27 and Jussi Jokinen pumped in 21 goals.
With or without Malkin, Pittsburgh should have enough scoring to beat just about anybody. The club finished fifth in the league with 2.95 goals per game and also tied for the league's best power-play success rate, scoring 23.4 percent of the time on the man advantage.
However, while the top two lines are loaded with scoring options the real concern up front for head coach Dan Bylsma has been finding a working formula for his bottom-six forwards. Getting positive minutes out of the third and fourth lines could be an issue in the playoffs as Bylsma keeps trying to find the right combination.
With the recent return of Kris Letang from a stroke suffered in January, the Pens are healthy on the blue line and have the makings of three solid defensive pairings.
Letang, of course, is the club's best offensive weapon from the back end. Despite playing in only 37 games this season, he notched 11 goals to lead the Pittsburgh defense. He could be paired with Rob Scuderi, who is a stay-at-home guy capable of balancing out the pairing.
Brooks Orpik is another defense-first blueliner who works well with Paul Martin. a guy adept at moving the puck up ice. Orpik had two goals and 11 assists in 72 games, while Martin recorded 15 points (3g, 12a) in 39 games during an injury-plagued season.
Meanwhile, Matt Niskanen led the Pens' blue line in points with 46 (10g, 36a) over 81 games and expects to play alongside rookie Olli Maatta, a 19-year-old who notched 29 points (9g, 20a) and a plus-eight rating in 78 games. Maatta, a first-round pick by Pittsburgh in 2012, will be skating in his first NHL playoffs.
While the defensive group is healthy and deep, it won't mean much if Marc- Andre Fleury struggles again in net. Fleury anchored Pittsburgh's Cup win in 2009, but he has looked awful in the postseason since then and was even demoted to backup last spring.
Fleury was replaced by Tomas Vokoun as the club's No. 1 goaltender after Game 4 of the opening round against the New York Islanders and did not start another game in the playoffs.
However, Pittsburgh is putting its faith in Fleury once again after he went 39-18-5 with a 2.37 goals against average and .915 save percentage during the 2013-14 regular season. In 80 games during his postseason career, Fleury is 45-34 with a 2.73 GAA and .903 save percentage.
Vokoun, meanwhile, did not play a single game at the NHL level this season due to a blood clot, but the veteran was recently recalled by Pittsburgh after completing a conditioning stint in the NHL. Either Vokoun or this season's backup Jeff Zatkoff could replace Fleury if he stumbles in the playoffs yet again.
COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
REGULAR SEASON RECORD: 43-32-7 (2nd wild card, East)
2013 PLAYOFFS: Did not qualify
For only the second time in club history, the Blue Jackets are in the playoffs. This time, Columbus hopes to skate away with at least one victory.
The 2000-01 expansion club didn't qualify for the postseason until 2009, when the Blue Jackets were swept out of the first round by Detroit.
Columbus enters this series with Pittsburgh at a serious disadvantage in the star power department, but that doesn't mean the Blue Jackets will roll over.
The Jackets set a franchise record with 226 goals this season, a total that placed them 12th in the league with an average of 2.76 gpg. Columbus was 13th in team defense, yielding 2.61 gpg.
Ryan Johansen led the Columbus offense with a breakout season in 2013-14. The fourth overall pick of the 2010 draft had posted only 14 goals and 33 points over 107 career games heading into this season, but ended up leading his team in both goals (33) and points (63). Of course, the 21-year-old has never tasted NHL playoff action, so he'll have to prove himself all over again in the postseason.
Artem Anisimov was the next-best goal-scorer, recording 22 tallies and 39 points in 81 games. The former New York Ranger has four goals and seven assists over 26 career playoff games.
All told, Columbus had seven players record 16 goals or more this season and head coach Todd Richards hopes that balanced scoring attack will be enough to keep pace with the high-powered Penguins.
Unfortunately, the Blue Jackets will be without forward Nathan Horton for the entire series. Horton had abdominal surgery earlier this month and will miss six weeks of action. He has the most playoff experience of any Columbus player, making it to two Stanley Cup Finals with his previous team, the Boston Bruins.
The key to the series for Columbus resides in the crease where Sergei Bobrovsky could give the Blue Jackets a considerable edge should Fleury get another case of the postseason yips. Bobrovsky won the Vezina last season and proved that campaign was no fluke in 2013-14, going 32-20-5 with a 2.38 GAA and .923 save percentage.
Bobrovsky has playoff experience from his time in Philadelphia, starting three postseason games while making relief appearances on four other occasions. He was 0-2 with a 4.04 GAA and .848 save percentage in those outings.
Columbus has the most talented defensive group in team history, with Jack Johnson and James Wisniewski leading the way and rookie Ryan Murray not far behind.
Johnson is the workhorse and No. 1 option for Richards, leading the team this season with an average ice time of 24 minutes, 40 seconds per game. The American had five goals and 28 assists while playing in all 82 games. Wisniewski set a club record for points by a defenseman this season with 51 points (7g, 44a) in 75 games.
However, Johnson and Wisniewski have combined to play in only 40 career playoff games. The most seasoned postseason player on Columbus' blue line is Fedor Tyutin, who has nine assists over 28 career playoff games.
Murray, the second overall pick of the 2012 draft, had a strong rookie season in 2013-14. The 20-year-old notched four goals and 17 assists in 66 games and also was a plus-four for the season.
Dalton Prout and Nikita Nikitin provide depth and shot-blocking for Richards at the bottom end of the defensive rotation.
Pittsburgh swept the Blue Jackets in 2013-14, winning all five encounters in regulation. The Pens have claimed six straight and 10 of 12 in the series overall.
Crosby racked up seven points (2g, 5a) in five meetings with the Blue Jackets this season. Kunitz had six points on four goals and two assists, while Neal added three goals and two helpers. Fleury, meanwhile, went 3-0 with a 1.33 GAA.
Johnson was the best point-producer in the season series for Columbus, posting three assists over the five losses. One bright spot for the Blue Jackets was that Bobrovsky only faced Pittsburgh once in 2013-14, missing the other four encounters due to injury or illness.
Pittsburgh completely dominated the Jackets in special teams during the season series, going 5-for-19 on the power play while killing 13-of-14 penalties.
Another playoff implosion from Fleury could negate Pittsburgh's overall roster superiority, but barring a goaltending catastrophe the Pens should be able to get past an inexperienced Blue Jackets team.
Columbus is the youngest team in the NHL and while making the playoffs is a sign things are finally heading in the right direction, it's too soon to expect them to upset the likes of the Penguins.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Penguins in 6
04/15 11:55:52 ET