By Sarah Kwak
Regular season recaps
Nov. 1: Penguins 4, Blue Jackets 2
Nov. 2: Penguins 3, Blue Jackets 0
Dec. 9: Penguins 2, Blue Jackets 1
Dec. 29: Penguins 5, Blue Jackets 3
March 28: Penguins 2, Blue Jackets 1
Keys to a Penguins victory
It’s been an uneven season in Pittsburgh, where expectations never dip below a Stanley Cup. Though the Penguins won the Metropolitan Division despite a dressing room that doubled as an infirmary for much of the season, their 7-7-3 finish doesn't bode well. They are, though, expected to get (relatively) healthy bodies back in the lineup, which should help their cause. Even at less than 100 percent, after all, Evgeni Malkin (battling a foot injury since the end of March) is better than most NHL players. Beyond health, the key for Pittsburgh will be to dictate the game’s pace. The Blue Jackets will clog the neutral zone, push play to the boards and slow the pace. To win, the Penguins will need speed and smart outlet passes to maintain possession and keep Columbus chasing.
Keys to a Blue Jackets victory
Columbus plays a puck-hungry type of game. The Blue Jackets are relentless in pursuit, which can make them a dangerous opponent on any given night. But in a seven-game series, they’ll need to generate more offense than the 29.6 shots per game they averaged in 2013-14, with ranked 19th in the league. The also have to make the most of their opportunities -- against Pittsburgh this season, Columbus scored just one goal in 14 power-play opportunities. But the biggest key to a Blue Jackets upset is in net. Goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, last year’s Vezina Trophy winner, will have to be superhuman to silence the likes of Malkin and Sidney Crosby. Bobrovsky is coming into the postseason hot, averaging 1.82 goals-against, with a .945 save percentage, in April. If he can maintain those kinds of numbers against the Penguins, he could certainly give overmatched Columbus at least a chance.
Penguins in 5: Pittsburgh avoided a meeting with potential bracket-buster Detroit in the first round, which was welcome news to the Pens. They match up much better against Columbus, having won all five meetings this season. The Blue Jackets could hit, bash and grind their way to a win or two; they could get a game-stealing performance from Bobrovsky, too. But realistically, Columbus just doesn’t have enough depth to get past the outsized talent and skill of Crosby and Co. They may come out of it a little banged up, but the Penguins will come out of this series nonetheless.
Game 1: April 16, @ Pittsburgh; 7:30 pm ET (NBCSN, CBC)
Game 2: April 19, @ Pittsburgh; 7 pm ET (NBCSN, CBC)
Game 3: April 21, @ Columbus; 7 pm ET (NBCSN, CBC)
Game 4: April 23, @ Columbus, 7 pm ET (NBCSN, CBC)
Game 5: April 26, @ Pittsburgh, time TBD (CBC)
Game 6: April 28, @ Columbus, time TBD (CBC)
Game 7: April 30, @ Pittsburgh, time TBD (CBC)