Blue Jackets vs. Penguins: Tale of the Defensive Tape

Kirk Irwin

The Blue Jackets have a plethora of young defensemen and a guy with a Vezina Trophy on his mantle. The Penguins can score at will, but also boast some dangerous defensemen and a goalie who can be terrific . . .or awful. How to the two clubs stack up on their own sides of the blue line?

Yesterday, Dan compared the Columbus and Pittsburgh offenses, bringing some definition to some of the factors that could be key in the upcoming first round matchup between the virtual geographic neighbors.   Today, we turn to the defensive end of the ice, examining the blue line, the goal-tending and the penalty killing units of each squad.

The Team Numbers

At the team level, Pittsburgh held opponents to 2.49 goals per game, good for 10th in the NHL.  The Blue Jackets come in three slots behind, at 2.61 goals allowed per game.  What does this difference mean?  Truthfully, not much.  It does suggest  that the clubs are roughly comparable in terms of their respective abilities to keep the puck out of the net, as an aggregate difference of .12 goals per game over the course of 82 games is insignificant, particularly when used to predict the outcome of a best of seven series.

The playoffs, of course, are all about momentum, and this is just as true at the defensive end of the ice as it is with respect to the offensive efforts.  So, given that fact, what have these defenses done lately?  Looking at the last 30 games -- an interval long enough to dilute the impact of injuries and such -- the Penguins have allowed 79 goals -- a 2.63 clip.  That's above their season average, but not drastically so.  Over the same span, the Blue Jackets have surrendered just 68 goals,  a stingy 2.27 clip.  That's an impressive trend worth noting.

While will discuss the individual factors in these numbers in a bit, this is also somewhat reflective of the overall styles the clubs have adopted.  Pittsburgh is an offensively driven squad -- though certainly not to the extreme of a Washington, or even Chicago.  That will sometimes come back to bite you.  Though the Penguins certainly have the talent to score their way out of most dilemmas, the reality hasn't been quite that definitive.  Pittsburgh has surrendered 4 or more goals 23 times this season, and has managed just five wins among those games.  Columbus has surrendered 4+ goals 22 times, but has won just a single contest.  So, it's probably a fair statement that neither team excels in high scoring contests, but that the Penguins have the edge in any track meet. That's not a shock to Columbus observers, as coach Todd Richards places supreme value on the "grit" of checking  -- an attitude that sometimes puts him crossways with some of the more skilled players, and the fans.  While Richards maintains a looser leash than Ken Hitchcock, who becomes visibly agitated if more than three goals are scored in a game . . . combined, he shares the pathological fear of track meets.

Another truism of playoff hockey is the pre-eminence of special teams.  The Pittsburgh penalty kill ranks fifth in the league, stopping 85% of the power play chances they faced during the regular season.  The Blue Jackets trail in 14th place, at 82.1% efficiency.  Again, however, those differences are unlikely to surface in a seven game series.  To put it in context, Pittsburgh's edge would amount to 3 fewer goals allowed over the course of 100 power plays.  If both teams play to form -- and considering how reluctant NHL referees are to blow the whistles in the post season -- this is a functional draw.

Penalties are a particular area of concern for Columbus, who have periodically fallen into periods of committing silly minor penalties (i.e. offensive zone infractions) with alarming frequency.  They can't afford that against the Penguins -- for many reasons.   Conversely, the Blue Jackets power play has been resurgent of late, which could pose some difficulties for the Penguins as well.  Still, there are unlikely to be large numbers of special teams opportunities, unless one side or the other stops skating.  That's when the penalties come.

Individual Standard Bearers

The Blue Jackets' defensive corps is an interesting amalgamation of youth, experience, talent and grit, all wrapped in a thin veneer of unpredictability.  James Wisniewski is perhaps the epitome of the enigmatic nature of this group.  On the one hand, he ranks ninth in the NHL in defensive points, with 51, and has honed his point shot to be a consistently potent weapon.  On the other hand, he routinely commits some breathtaking turnovers in the defensive zone, which obviously create sigificant peril.  Maybe that explains his +/- rating of zero, despite his point production.  Wiz giveth and Wiz taketh away.

Jack Johnson and Fedor Tyutin bring experience to the blue line, but in vastly different ways.  Tyutin plays a "quiet" defensive game, relying on proper positioning, use of his stick and the savvy of his years in the league.  He can contribute offensively, but has pared back his offensive numbers a bit this season. Johnson, on the other hand, thrives in the offensive zone.  He posted 5-28-33 this season, which do not approach Wisniewski's numbers, but are solid nonetheless.  Johnson's issues come from the red line back.  He has speed, but sometimes overestimates his ability to recover, and will surrender the odd man rush by virtue of an ill-timed pinch.  He can play a physical game, but also can play "soft", giving the opposition too much time and space.  That tendency would be fatal against the Penguins, and contributes to his minus-7 plus/minus, tied for worst among Columbus defenders.  Still, when playing their game, Wisniewski, Johnson and Tyutin form a solid core for the Blue Jackets' defense.  Nick Schultz, acquired from Edmonton at the deadline, provides another veteran resource.

The question marks for the Blue Jackets come in the bottom four defensemen.   Talented rookie Ryan Murray leads this contingent.  He has impressed everyone this year with the way he has been able to step into an NHL lineup, provide top 4 defensive work and provide a defensively reliable partner for the mercurial Wisniewski.  His cool under pressure has been his greatest attribute, and if that withstands the crucible of the playoffs, it could be a very good sign for the Blue Jackets' chances.   David Savard, Nikita Nikitin and Dalton Prout round out the defensive unit, and are the wild cards in this equation.  Nikitin struggled early, but has played solidly, if unspectacularly, coming down the stretch.  He showed a lot of promise offensively last year, but has dropped of considerably on that score this campaign.  Savard has surprised in a positive way at both ends, but it remains to be seen how he will react to the playoff atmosphere.  Dalton Prout brings a physical game, but is prone to bad decisions and lacks the speed needed to challenge teams like Pittsburgh and Chicago.  He shares Johnson's minus-7 rating, and is a likely candidate to be the seventh defenseman throughout the series.

Given that talented Kris Letang was absent for much of the final three months of the season after shockingly sustaining a stroke, Matt Niskanen has stepped in to lead the defense for the Penguins.  He posted 10 goals, 36 assists and 46 points in 81 games, showing that he can be a true three zone defenseman.  18 of those points came on the power play.  Though I am not a fan of the plus/minus statistic, it can be useful on a comparative basis within the same team.  Niskanen's plus-33 outstrips the next closest defenseman, Olli Maata, by 25 points.   However, among the defensive regulars, only Niskanen, Maata and Simon Despres have positive +/- numbers.  Given the club's offensive prowess, this suggest that the blue line has struggled at even strength.

Veteran Brooks Orpik and Rob Scuderi bring experience to the back line, but little offensive punch.  Paul Martin was limited to just 39 games in the regular season, but is rounding back into form at the right time.  32-year old Deryk Engelland also brings a veteran presence, and Robert Bortuzzo is a young, physical player who leads the team in penalty minutes.

To be sure, the Pittsburgh blue line squad has been hampered by injuries, and has been vulnerable at even strength.  They are assisted by the ability of the Penguins' offiense to maintain possession and minimize defensive zone time.  Niskanen, Letang and Martin pose problems for the opposition in the offensive zone, as they can join the rush and fuel the possession game, without sacrificing defensive responsibility.  As with Columbus' duo of Johnson and Wisniewski, their offensive enthusiasm can periodically result in wrong way rushes, but the Penguins' team speed ameliorates that risk somewhat.

The Battle of the Blue Ice

You can't complete an analysis of the defensive end without talking about the match-up in goal:  Marc-Andre Fleury vs. Sergei Bobrovsky.   The Stanley Cup ring vs. the Vezina Trophy.  During the regular season, Fleury and Bobrovsky were functional equals in GAA, with Fleury notching a 2.37 number, and Bobrovsky a 2.38.   Bobrovsky holds the edge in save percentage, .923 to .915.   Bobrovsky struggled a bit in the early season, but after his return from a month-long injury hiatus, he has played a much elevated game.  His stinginess down the stretch compensated for some front line injuries, enabling the Blue Jackets to clinch the playoff berth.

Of course, you can't discuss the goal-tending without mentioning Fleury's now-legendary issues in the post-season.  To be fair, he turned in wone of the great netminder efforts in the 2007-08 post-season, notching a 1.97 GAA and a .933 save percentage in 20 games, as the Penguins lost to the Red Wings in six.  He was a respectable 2.61 and .908 in the 24 game run to the Cup the following year, but has struggled since.  In 31 playoff outings over the past four years, Fleury has allowed 97 goals on 809 shots, for a 3.18 GAA and an .880 save percentage.

For his part, Bobrovsky has limited -- and unsuccessful -- playoff experience.  Over seven games for the Flyers in the 10-11 and 11-12 playoff campaigns, he has an .848 save percentage and a 4.04 GAA.   That was a different team, a different time, and an entire Vezina Trophy ago.  He is an older, wiser player, with a strong work ethic and an even stronger sense of responsibility.  He has displayed his trademark visage of steely control in the stretch run, which presented plenty of pressure of its own.  Will he wilt at playoff time?  Nobody knows, but I wouldn't bet on it.

This is by far the most intriguing story line of this initial series, and it could well dictate the outcome.

The Overview

Defensively, these clubs are more similar than they are different.  They have a reasonably solid core of a few blue liners, combined with some question marks.  The Penguins have struggled somewhat at even strength, while Columbus has had issues with turnovers and playing too soft in their own zone.  They each have a mix of the physical and the skilled, and have guys that can rack up points, if need be.

For Columbus to be successful, they need to disrupt the Penguins in the neutral zone and furstrate their possession game.  A forecheck is important, but those fore-checkers need to display the same speed coming back to the defensive zone, putting back pressure on the Penguins high in the zone.  While Pittsburgh is not overly physical, they are one of the few playoff teams near the top of the league in hits (the Blue Jackets are another).  The key is not so much to hit the Penguins, but to check them responsibly, use the sticks to shut off passing lanes, and prevent the offense from settling in.

Pittsburgh's challenge will be to match the even strength energy of the Blue Jackets forward lines.  Columbus has shown the ability to use its own possession game to considerable advantage, and it has more depth up front than most realize.  While Foligno and Umberger will miss the series opener, they are anticpated back during the series, and the likes of Ryan Johansen, Artem Anisimov, Brandon Dubinsky, Matt Calvert and Cam Atkinson are more than enough to occupy any defense.  Keep in mind that Columbus (1.06) and Pittsburgh (1.05) have functionally identical Goals For/Goals Against ratios at even strength.

Ultimately, this will come down to goaltending.  If Marc-Andre Fleury can regain his form, the Penguins could run deep into the playoffs.  Similarly, if Sergei Bobrovsky can ride his momentum through the first round, the Blue Jackets can make some serious noise.

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