For the second time in four years, the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Pittsburgh Penguins will face off in the first round off the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and there are storylines to be had. The Jackets and Penguins are growing into a pretty heated rivalry, but at the same time it's not a rivalry? (Spoiler alert - it is.)
This was a regular season unlike any other seen by Blue Jackets fans of any era, not just in what was produced on on the ice and in the standings (still...F I F T Y victories? I still do a double take, honestly), but with how it is we feel about the hockey club.
The season began with few, if any, real expectations, and even though the Jackets kept on winning, no expectations really came out of it. We didn't expect to see a near record-breaking winning streak. We didn't expect to see what we saw from the likes of Cam Atkinson, Zach Werenski or Sergei Bobrovsky. We didn't expect to watch a hockey team that would have its time at the top of the NHL standings.
There was a lot of good that came out of the 50-win regular season, and it's natural for there to be optimism spilling over from the most successful regular season campaign in team history into the playoffs. And that's not a bad thing. Here are some reasons you should be feeling these feelings.
The Blue Jackets Didn't Pick Up A Point Just Once Against The Penguins In The Regular Season
That isn't nothing. Sure, it was the regular season, and the go-to move for anyone who wants to curb your enthusiasm about the playoffs will attempt to remind you that regular season things don't really count (which, if that's the case, why doesn't every team make the playoffs? But I guess that's another conversation for another day), but I'm here for optimism, and this is a good optimism thing.
Columbus went 2-1-1 against Pittsburgh this year, failing to collect a point only in the season's final meeting earlier this month, but even that wasn't a horribly played game - the Jackets got exactly zero breaks in that contest, which is going to happen now and again.
Of those other three games from this year - two went into overtime and one was the 7-1 game.
I needn't not tell you how vital Bob is going to be this post season for the Jackets. He's logging another Vezina (and dare I say Hart...) caliber year and is healthy (knocks on wood one million times), and has been a joy to watch. But, what you may not know, is how much Bob loves playing the Penguins.
In 19 career contests against Pittsburgh (the most games he's played against any team, for what it's worth), Bob is 11-6-2 with a .914 save percentage and a 2.66 goals against average.
His 11 wins against the Pens are the second-most wins against a single team in his career, behind only the 12 victories he's logged against the Islanders (having played the Isles just one less time).
Killing Them Penalties Ded. DED I SAY
Columbus closed the regular season with the ninth-best penalty killing unit in the NHL, killing 82.5% of man-down situations, and tied for the second-most short-handed goals in the league with 10 (only behind Nashville's 12). Pittsburgh, on the other hand, finished 20th in the league, killing 79.8% of their man-down situations.
When comparing team splits, the Penguins killed 83.5% of penalties at home, while the Blue Jackets killed 83.3% of penalties inside Nationwide.
The Blue Jackets Are Coming In Cold
Yes, I know. This is an odd thing to be "optimistic" about. But, hear me out
For a long time, I've held a belief that if a team enters the playoffs cold, they're mentally in a better state to do well. There's no pressure to continue "good," play or end-of-season winning ways. They understand that, sure they slumped, but maybe they slumped because they had the security of knowing the playoffs were ahead. However, the Jackets being "cold" isn't as bad as you might think.
Since March began, the Blue Jackets won 11 contests, dropped eight games and fell in overtime or a shootout four times. And, while the Jackets did fall six consecutive times from March 30 - April 9, the Jackets fell in one-goal contests five times, and only lost by more than two on two occasions.
And, yes, I'm aware there isn't really anything that constitutes as a "good" loss, especially in the playoffs, but for a team that appeared to be struggling so mightily - it kind of makes me, at the very least, feel a bit better about how the Jackets ended their season.
Since the 2010/11 season, four teams who went on to win the Stanley Cup had similar stretches to close their season that the Blue Jackets endured this year - the 2010/11 Boston Bruins, who went on a four-game winless streak in early March, the 2011/12 Los Angeles Kings, who lost their final two regular-season games in post-regulation time, the 2013/14 Kings who went 13-6-2 but had to go to the shootout twice to bump that victory total a bit, and Brandon Saad's 2014/15 Chicago Blackhawks squad went 11-7-1 to close their year.
I guess what I'm trying to say here is it isn't a death wish. Or a nail in the coffin. It was just a rough stretch of hockey.
What are your reasons for optimism leading into the playoffs for the Jackets? Is there too much optimism floating around out there? Or, perhaps even, not enough?