The 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs have arrived, so have Puck Daddy’s preview of all playoff series. Enjoy!
The Pittsburgh Penguins (50-21-11, 111 points) entered the 2016-17 season as the defending Stanley Cup Champion, minus their top goaltender and superstar forward. Matt Murray broke his hand in the World Cup of Hockey. Sidney Crosby experienced another concussion everyone swears didn’t happen during the World Cup.
The team was pretty much fine without them. Crosby returned after missing six games. He finished the season collecting his second ‘Rocket’ Richard Trophy with 44 goals. Crosby averaged better than a point a game with 89 points in 75 games.
As for Murray, he made his first start in the tenth game of the season. He quieted those who doubted the consistency of his Stanley Cup performance by amassing a 32-10-4 record. As expected, Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury (18-10-7) split time in net with Murray getting 47 starts to Fleury’s 34.
Phil Kessel tied Conor Sheary in goals at 23, and was third on the team in scoring with 70 points. Like Crosby, Evgeni Malkin averaged a point-per-game pace (72 points in 62 games), but he went out of the lineup Mar. 17 with an upper-body injury.
Injuries were the biggest theme of the Penguins season, and they managed to remain competitive. The team lost Kris Letang for the remainder of the season. Chris Kunitz went out Mar. 1 and Carl Hagelin on Mar. 12; they’re expected to miss game one and per NHL.com, their status is unknown for the rest of the series. Trevor Daley had knee surgery and was out 20 games. Olli Maatta underwent hand surgery and was out 25 games. Ron Hainsey was acquired from the Carolina Hurricanes to fill in for the gap on the blueline. Hainsey lasted 10 games before sustaining an upper-body injury. Daley, Maatta, and Hainsey returned for a couple games before the season ended. Bryan Rust missed 20 games with an upper-body injury. He came back for seven games before Dubinsky took him out with a hard hit. He was rested the remainder of the season and is expected back for the playoffs.
The Pens finished seven points behind the Washington Capitals and three point ahead of the Columbus Blue Jackets in the Metro.
The Blue Jackets (50-24-8, 108 points) were one of the surprises of the regular season. The team set franchise highs in win and points. They didn’t hit the 20 loss mark until the last two weeks of the regular season.
Columbus’s regular season was highlighted by an incredible 16 game win streak spanning Nov. 11 to Jan. 3. They fell just one game shy of tying the NHL record of 17 straight wins set by the 1992-93 Pittsburgh Penguins.
Some of the credit for the Jackets’ success went to John Tortorella and his ability to chill the eff out when his players asked him to. There were reports veterans asked Torts to dial the intensity back and that help lead to the changes on the ice.
As usual, Sergei Bobrovsky was the workhorse for the Blue Jackets, starting 63 times. He put in another Vezina-worthy performance with a 41-17-5 record, 2.06 goals-against, .931 save-percentage, and posted seven shutouts.
The offense was led by Cam Atkinson. He scored a career high 35 goals and 62 points, and led the team in game-winning goals at 9. Atkinson earned a place on the All-Star Game roster (albeit as a replacement, but it was very deserved). The Jackets had four players with 50-plus point seasons: Alexander Wennberg (59 points), Brandon Saad (53 points), Nick Foligno (55 points), and a resurgent Sam Gagner (50 points).
The breakout blueliner was rookie Zach Werenski. He led all Blue Jackets’ defensemen in scoring with 47 points and 21 of those points came on the power play. Seth Jones, in his first full year with Columbus, was right behind Werenski in offensive production with 12 goals and 42 points, both career highs for Jones.
Werenski went out of the lineup with four games to go in the season after he was destroyed on a hit by Alex Ovechkin. He’s expected to be back in the lineup for Game 1.
The Jackets tumbled into the playoffs. The team was on a season-high six game losing streak before beating the Toronto Maple Leafs in the final game.
Wednesday, April 12, 7:00pm ET: Blue Jackets @ Penguins | USA, SN 360, TVA Sports
Friday, April 14, 7:00pm ET: Blue Jackets @ Penguins | NHL Network, Sportsnet, TVA Sports
Sunday, April 16, 6:00pm ET: Penguins @ Blue Jackets | CNBC, SN 360, TVA Sports
Tuesday, April 18, 7:30pm ET: Penguins @ Blue Jackets | CNBC, SN 360, TVA Sports
*Thursday, April 20, TBD: Blue Jackets @ Penguins | TBD
*Sunday, April 23, TBD: Penguins @ Blue Jackets | TBD
*Wednesday, April 26, TBD: Blue Jackets @ Penguins | TBD
3 KEYS FOR THE PENGUINS
1 — Pray for health. The Hockey Gods have not smiled on the Penguins’ health this season. The good thing for Pittsburgh is that they’ll get Malkin back to start the series, and longer they go, the more players they’ll get back on the roster – minus Kris Letang.
2 — Find this year’s HBK Line. The story of the Hagelin-Bonino-Kessel line from last season’s playoffs will go down infamy. The team tried to play the trio together this year and it wasn’t as magical. Finding this year’s version of the unexpected HBK Line will further solidify the Penguins’ chances at repeating.
3 — Just say ‘no’ to Tom Sestito. There is no question the Blue Jackets are going to go after Crosby and try to drive him insane. Should there be a questionable hit or a missed call on the Penguins captain in a game, that doesn’t mean Tom Sestito should be in the next one. He’s taking the roster spot of someone who is more talented and skilled than he is. It’s just not worth it. Patric Hornqvist is more than able to go after Dubinsky and the Jackets to defend Sid.
3 KEYS FOR THE BLUE JACKETS
1 — Dubinsky-Crosby match up. Pittsburgh took the season series between the two teams 2-1-1, and the one regulation loss was a 7-1 stinker. Over the four games, Crosby was held without a point in two games and recorded 1 goal and 2 assists in two others. Part of that is helped by matching Crosby up against his arch-nemesis, Brandon Dubinsky.
Looking at Shift Chart, when Columbus has the last change, Tortorella gets Dubinsky on the ice as much as possible against Crosby. To compensate for this, Sullivan will shorten Sid’s shifts or hold him off the ice as Torts rolls his lines. This could lead to Sid taking a couple minutes off, or two shifts really close together. When Pittsburgh has the last change, Sullivan appears to get Sid out there towards the end of or right after Dubinsky’s shift. The less time Sid is on the ice or the more time he’s being annoyed by Dubinsky, the better for the Blue Jackets.
2 — Don’t get overwhelmed. For the third time in franchise history, the Blue Jackets have made the playoffs. Columbus faced in Penguins in the first round of 2014, and Pittsburgh won the series, 4-2. There is no reason for the Blue Jackets to change their mentality or overhaul the game plan from the regular season to now. Winning 16 games in a row is something they’ve done before, and something they’ll need to do again when it counts the most.
3 — Zen Master Tortorella. John Tortorella has a Stanley Cup ring. That doesn’t mean he has to be Torts from that era to get this team to win. The zen state of Torts has propelled the Blue Jackets far. Just because the stakes rise, doesn’t mean Tortorella’s outward intensity has to (at least, not every single moment of every single day).
5 STATS OF NOTE
1 — The Penguins ended the regular season with a 3.39 goals-for per game, the highest in the NHL. Conversely, the Blue Jackets’ 2.34 goals-against per game is the second lowest in the league.
2 — Pittsburgh’s power play was third in the NHL at 23.1-percent. They had 260 power play opportunities (fifth most). What’s interesting is looking at the Home and Away splits: at Home the Pens convert at 26.5-percent and drop to 19.5-percent on the road.
3 — The Blue Jackets have the least amount of power play opportunities in the NHL at 211, and when they do have the man-advantage, Columbus converts at 19.9-percent (12th).
4 — The Penguins penalty kill is 79.8-percent, good enough for (an almost shocking) 20th in the league. As for the Blue Jackets, they’re successfully killing penalties at an 82.5-percent clip (9th overall).
5 — Justin Schultz is the highest scoring defenseman on the Penguins with 51 points. Granted that’s mostly due to injuries, but still, let that roll around in your brain for a while because he’s going to get P-A-I-D this off-season (not by the Penguins).
Penguins in 7. This is going to be an ugly, hate-filled series – just the way we like it. Pittsburgh’s experience will eventually win out, and they have Sidney Crosby. That helps.
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