Just two years removed from a 30th-place finish, the Blue Jackets have earned their way back into the Playoffs. And, having played nemesis Detroit in their first ever playoff series in 2009, it almost seems like the Franchise would *have* to face the Penguins in their second trip to the post-season.
While the Jackets' first foray into the playoffs was over quickly and with a whimper, this year's Jackets feel a bit different. And, while on paper the Penguins look formidable, there may be some cracks in the armor. Let's look at the offenses, and see how they stack up, shall we?
PIT - 242, 2.95 gpg
CBJ - 226, 2.76 gpg
Each team also scored eight empty net goals on the season, so those numbers stay equaled out over the full season.
PIT - 165, 2.01 gpg
CBJ - 153, 1.87 gpg
PIT - 65, 0.79 gpg (65-for-278, 23.4%)
CBJ - 54, 0.66 gpg (54-for-280, 19.3%)
PIT - 2
CBJ - 8
Sidney Crosby - 36
Chris Kunitz - 35
James Neal - 27
Ryan Johansen - 33
Artem Anisimov - 22
Cam Atkinson - 21
The Trends - Goals
Those numbers above paint a picture in Pittsburgh's favor, and obviously no sane person would disagree that the Penguins come into the series with the better offense, especially given that they beat Columbus all five times while scoring 16 goals in the process.
I would counter, however, that the first two games were a bit different. They happened in early November, before the Jackets had really found the stride that would get them into the playoff hunt later in the season. The final three games were much, much closer, with the Penguins winning two one-goal games and a two-goal game. And, I would argue that the Jackets got a little bit closer each and every time the teams played.
Let's look more closely at the offense since the Olympic Break, however.
The Jackets scored 60 goals in 24 games, and adjusting for overtime minutes, they registered 2.46 goals-per-game. Obviously, that's a downward trend from their overall season numbers, as they had been scoring over three goals per game for quite a long stretch through December and January.
How about the Penguins? Well, if the Jackets have been under-performing since the Olympic break offensively, the Penguins are actually underperforming worse. They also scored 60 goals in 24 games, and adjusting for overtime minutes (they went to overtime A LOT), they come in at 2.44 goals-per-game.
Obviously, for Pittsburgh, a lot of that has to do with injuries. Evgeni Malkin (23/49/72 in 60 games) hasn't played since March 23, and missed 11 of those final 24 games. Kris Letang (11/11/22 in 37 games from the blue line) just came back for the last three games, having previously not played since late January after suffering a stroke. Both of those players are huge factors in the Penguins' offense, especially on the Power Play.
Letang is back, and Malkin *might* be back for the series. Add in to that the Columbus will be without Nathan Horton, and most likely R.J. Umberger and Nick Foligno, for the bulk of the series, and that might just even out those numbers. Those three players for Columbus account for 41 goals and 51 assists. In addition, those three account for 86 combined games of playoff experience.
That won't go un-felt for the Jackets, unfortunately.
The Trends - Power Play
This, on paper, is where the Penguins have a huge advantage. The Jackets' Power Play has been a total feast-or-famine unit this season, having endured an 0-for-36 stretch before getting super-hot to end the season. Overall, though, since the Olympic Break, the Blue Jackets' Power Play has been, well, decent. In 24 games, the Jackets have gone 17-for-81, good for 21%. That's actually pretty good, and it includes that abysmal 0-for-36 stretch. If we look at just the last 11 games since that skid was broken, Columbus is converting at a 13-for-36 clip, good for 36.1%. That is, how you say, GOOD.
For the Penguins, as noted, the injuries to Letang and Malkin have had an effect on their league-best Power Play. And, when you think about that, it tells you how scary that Power Play can be if everyone's healthy and they're firing on all cylinders. Since the Olympic break, they've been down a bit from their season average, converting 17-for-89, good for 19.1%. For a comparison's sake, over the stretch that Columbus has been very hot on the PP, Pittsburgh has been a bit worse than their overall post-break clip, cashing in at a 6-for-33 rate, good for just 18.2%.
Again, Letang just got back and Malkin may or may not play. We can only guess as to what they might do to the unit if they have both guys back. That said, the Jackets are certainly playing better on the Power Play of late, and can hopefully carry that over to the series to negate what otherwise might be a rather large advantage for the Penguins.
So, what have we learned here?
Well, a lot and nothing at all, really. As we know (or, well, as we can speculate based on watching every year), the playoffs are a different animal. Teams tighten up, and scoring goes down. That *should* favor the Jackets, as they're not built to be a high-flying wide-open scoring machine like the Penguins have shown themselves to be at their best, and Columbus has been playing those kinds of games for a month or so now.
And, if we look at the overall trends since the Olympic Break (which, one could argue, signaled the beginning of "the playoff push" where teams start that tightening up process), the Jackets match the Pens for offense and have been the better team on the Power Play.
BUT, there are mitigating factors/caveats there: the Penguins have been battling a TON of injuries to some very important players, and they have also had the division all but locked up since December, and have been trailing Boston for a long enough spell to have perhaps taken their foot off the gas just enough to skew those numbers. To say they haven't needed a full effort for the last few weeks would be an understatement.
So, the final questions will be these: are the Jackets physical enough and hungry enough to slow down the Pens, and to make it difficult for them to flip that switch back on? Can they get in Marc-Andre Fleury's head enough to rattle him and perhaps get some "easier" goals? And, frankly, can they stop being so impressed/scared of the Pens to actually try to beat them instead of just trying to hang on?
The answers to those questions will go a long way toward determining the outcome of this series, and whether the Jackets can hang in.