The Pittsburgh Penguins begin their quest to repeat as Stanley Cup Champions as they are set to take on the Columbus Blue Jackets tonight. The Penguins took the season series with a record of 2-1-1 and finished just ahead of Columbus in the standings with 111 points at the conclusion of the regular season. The two teams faced off during the 2014 postseason which saw the Blue Jackets win their first ever postseason game, but eventually lost to the Penguins in six games. While winning a playoff game or two in the last matchup may have been enough for Columbus, this time around they are out to prove their regular season was no fluke.
The question most teams seem to ask themselves on a nightly basis is how do we stop Sidney Crosby. Crosby leads the Penguins in goals with 44 and overall points with 89 which will prove to be troublesome for the Blue Jackets defense. Jason Mackey of the Post Gazette quoted Columbus defensemen Jack Johnson talking about playing against Crosby and the Penguins.
“He’s a special player. He’s going to be a pain in the [butt] for us in the series, but that’s what makes it fun.”
The problem Crosby and the Penguins may run into the most during this series is the Columbus goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. Bobrovsky finished the season with the highest goals against average with.931 while also finishing third in the league in wins with 41. While the Penguins have been using a two goalie system throughout the season with Matt Murray and Marc Andre-Fleury, the Blue Jackets have stuck with their former Vezina Trophy winner all season. Bobrovsky may have a 2-6 career playoff record between the pipes, but he has taken strides to show he isn’t the goalie of years past.
The Penguins will also be seeing a familiar face returning to the lineups when the series begins with Evgeni Malkin being cleared to return from his upper-body injury. Up until his injury, Malkin was neck and neck with Crosby for the lead league in goals but saw his regular season come to an end in the middle of March finishing with 33 goals in 62 games played. With much of the Blue Jackets top defensemen focusing on Crosby and the top line, Malkin has a chance to be the Penguins’ best player throughout this series. Despite 48 career postseason goals, Malkin still seems nervous about his play heading into game one.
Kirstie Chiappelli of Sporting News quoted Malkin during an interview regarding his return to game action.
“Three weeks is a long time. The first game I’ll try to do my best. It’s not easy. What can you do? Just play. I’ll play the first shift and after just keep going. I’ll play my game. Control the puck, take a couple hits and be ready to play.”
One statistic that will favor the Penguins heading into this matchup is their Power Play. The Penguins finished the regular season 4th in the NHL in Power Play Percentage with 23.1 percent. The Blue Jackets, on the other hand, have only the 11th best penalty kill in the league at 82.5 percent leading many experts to think the Power Play will be the difference maker in this series.
What is most befuddling about these playoffs is that the Penguins have gone under the radar as defending Stanley Cup Champions. Often the defending champion team will say that every other opposing team will be giving them their best game, but the Penguins have not had to use that mindset. Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan rarely talks about the future but did admit to talking to former Red Wings coach Scotty Bowman on what it takes to repeat as champions in the NHL. Jason Mackey of the Post Gazette wrote an article about this conversation and quoted Sullivan on Bowman.
“With what he’s been able to accomplish in the game, I think all of us who are aspiring coaches look to guys like Scotty as role models and mentors to try and learn from. I had a long conversation this summer with Scotty about how to repeat and some of his insights. He’s the last guy to do it. That probably is an example of how highly I think of him as a hockey coach and as a person.”
Since there has not been a champion to repeat since 1997-1998, the Penguins certainly have the odds stacked against them but can get off to a good start with a series win versus a tough Columbus Blue Jackets team.
[Featured Image by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images]