The wait is over - tonight marks the Jackets’ return to the playoffs for just the third time in franchise history, and they are tasked with taking down the defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins in the opening round.
Throughout the day today we’ll take a look at each team from a positional perspective, starting with the bluelines for each club. The Jackets caught a bit of luck with Kris Letang suffering yet another long-term injury, as a healthy Letang would lead to a skill mismatch between the two clubs. With him sidelined and Zach Werenski returning to action, the scales may be tipped in Columbus’ favour.
Based on the practice lines reported below, Zach Werenski return to action alongside his usual partner in Seth Jones. The shutdown pair of David Savard and Jack Johnson remains a fixture, while Kyle Quincey and Markus Nutivaara skated as the third pairing. Gabriel Carlsson and Scott Harrington were the extras.
The Penguins will rely on Brian Dumoulin and Ron Hainsey as a quasi-shutdown pairing, with the duo of Nick Schultz and Iain Cole serving as a more traditional balanced pair. Schultz is the primary offensive threat from the blueline for Pittsburgh, though Olli Maatta - lined up with Trevor Daley on the bottom pairing - can also put up points. Veteran Mark Streit is looking like a healthy scratch at this point.
#Pens D pairs:— Sam Werner (@SWernerPG) April 11, 2017
- Injuries - Obviously the biggest loss is Letang for the Penguins. He’s an elite talent, gobbling up minutes and putting up points. Letang will be out for the next four-to-six months. Also on the sidelines for the Pens is Chad Ruhwedel, who was spotted wearing an air cast and was not in practice. With Werenski back to practice, the Jackets are only without Ryan Murray, and one has to wonder if he’s an automatic to jump back into the starting six if he regains his health.
- Trade Deadline Acquisitions - The Jackets traded unused defender Dalton Prout to the New Jersey Devils for Kyle Quincey at the deadline, and Quincey has been a fixture since. Quincey also brings much-needed playoff experience, his 54 playoff games leads the CBJ blueline. The Penguins were busier at the deadline, bringing in Ron Hainsey on February 23rd and Mark Streit on deadline day in a laundered deal with the Flyers, via the Lightning. Though it’s looking like he may sit to start the series, Streit brings experience and an offensive touch, while Hainsey will be playing his first NHL playoff game. His record streak of 906 NHL games played without making the playoffs will be broken tonight.
- WERENSKI - He’ll be the X Factor for the Jackets. A Calder favorite in almost any other year, Werenski gives the CBJ a lethal top pairing that the Penguins can’t match with Letang out.
- What to do with Gabriel Carlsson? - As of the time of writing, rookie and former first rounder Carlsson was still with the Jackets, and it will be interesting to see if he’ll see game action. Quincey, barring poor play, should be a lock to play given his experience, but if Nutivaara is overwhelmed Carlsson could take his spot.
- Olli Maatta - Maatta only just returned from injury, but don’t let his spot on the third pairing hide the fact he’s a terrific blueliner that could give the Penguins a huge boost.
- Experience Counts - One category where the Penguins blow the Jackets out of the water is playoff experience. The Pens have been a playoff fixture and with their run to the ‘Cup last year, they know exactly what it takes to go all the way. This is a huge advantage over the young Jackets.