The playoffs have arrived.
It’s that special time of year, where the world seems to stop when the puck is dropped.
Superstitions become ways of life. The nerves grow game by game, round by round.
It’s a period of time where cuts, bruises and long beards are badges of honor.
Each win brings you one step closer to immortality. Each loss is one step closer to oblivion.
The first team to collect 16 wins earns the right to touch, kiss and hoist Lord Stanley’s Holy Grail.
Playoff hockey is like nothing else and it has once again returned to Pittsburgh.
For the Penguins, they will be looking to erase the memories of an Eastern Conference Finals gone horribly wrong last spring.
The powerhouse Penguins were quickly and unceremoniously dispatched from hockey’s ultimate tournament in a mere four games by the Boston Bruins.
It left fans and anyone associated with the franchise searching for answers.
Now, as the Penguins prepare to embark on another Quest for the Cup, a different set of questions will accompany them.
How will a team that lost a total of 529 man-games due to injuries put it all together in the playoffs?
Will Evgeni Malkin be ready to go for Game 1? If so, how close to 100 percent will he be?
Which Marc-Andre Fleury will we see? Will it be the one that won the Stanley Cup in 2009, or the one that was supplanted by Tomas Vokoun a year ago?
All are valid questions as the team gets ready to begin the quest Wednesday night against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
First, let’s break down the two combatants.
Season Series (Home Team Bold)
Nov. 1, 2013 – Pittsburgh 4, Columbus 2
Nov. 2, 2013 – Pittsburgh 3, Columbus 0
Dec. 9, 2013 – Pittsburgh 2, Columbus 1
Dec. 29, 2013 – Pittsburgh 5, Columbus 3
March 28, 2014 – Pittsburgh 2, Columbus 1
Sidney Crosby led the way with seven points (two goals, five assists) in the season series.
Chris Kunitz led the Penguins with four goals, while Deryk Engelland recorded one goal and three assists.
Jack Johnson led the way for Columbus with three points (all assists) in the series.
However, their balanced scoring attack showed up in the series as well.
Derek MacKenzie (one goal, one assist), Ryan Johansen (one goal, one assist), James Wisniewski (two assists) and Nikita Nikitin (one goal, one assist) were tied with two points each in the series.
Players To Watch
For Columbus, Sergei Bobrovsky (32-20-5, 2.38 GAA, .923 save percentage) is going to be the major key to Columbus’ playoff hopes. The reigning Vezina Trophy winner only faced the Penguins one time this season.
He allowed three goals on 13 shots before being yanked.
Bobrovsky holds a 5-4-1 record with a 3.05 GAA and a .902 save percentage against the Penguins in his career.
Ryan Johansen is another player to keep an eye on. He led the team with 33 goals and 63 points in 82 games this season.
Johansen recorded one goal and one assist against the Penguins this season, but he’s not afraid to shoot the puck. This season alone, he racked up 237 shots on net.
For Pittsburgh, the obvious first choice is Fleury (39-18-5, 2.37 GAA, .915 save percentage) for many. Despite the team’s struggles in front of him over the last couple of playoff runs, Fleury has not been at his best either.
History may be on his side when it comes to the Blue Jackets. In nine appearances, Fleury is 6-1-1 with a 2.18 GAA and a .931 save percentage.
This season, Fleury was 3-0 against Columbus and only allowed four goals on 108 shots.
The other guy to keep an eye on in this series is Jussi Jokinen. This is especially true if Malkin is not available for at least the start of the series.
Jokinen had one goal and two assists against the Blue Jackets this season. Without Malkin, Jokinen will likely continue to center the second line.
Columbus may shade over to pay more attention to James Neal, which should give Jokinen some extra time and space to create plays.
There are a lot of “ifs” heading into this series, but to me, a couple of things need to happen for the Penguins to advance.
First of all, if last year’s six-game quarterfinals series win over the Islanders taught this team anything, it’s that they cannot underestimate Columbus.
Despite getting smacked 5-0 in Game 1, the Islanders gave the Penguins all they could handle.
Pittsburgh cannot simply sit back and bank on being the more experienced and skilled team. They’ll need to earn it against a hungry Columbus team.
Secondly, the team will need to play worlds better than they have since the Olympic break. The careless turnovers and overall lackadaisical play for the better part of the last month needs to cease immediately.
If ever there was a time to flip the alleged “switch” to the “on” position, it’s now.
Injuries aside, there is no excuse for not being able to match the desperation and compete level of an opponent. This team still has a lot of talent on the roster, but talent alone will not win a playoff series.
If the team continues to lack a pulse at 5-on-5, the season could come to an early end and it won’t matter which goalie is in net.
Granted, the Penguins were 5-for-19 on the power play against Columbus this season and only surrendered one power play goal in 14 shorthanded chances.
However, Pittsburgh simply can’t just rely on how good their special teams have been this season either. They’ll need to put it together 5-on-5 and have the special teams weapons in their back pocket.
Despite all of these “ifs,” I think the Penguins have enough to get by Columbus.
However, I don’t think it’s going to be a slam dunk.
Penguins in 6.
Game 1 – Columbus Vs. Pittsburgh – Wednesday, April 16
Game 2 – Columbus Vs. Pittsburgh – Saturday,, April 19
Game 3 – Pittsburgh Vs. Columbus – Monday, April 21
Game 4 – Pittsburgh Vs. Columbus – Wednesday April 23
*Game 5 – Columbus Vs. Pittsburgh – Saturday, April 26
*Game 6 – Pittsburgh Vs. Columbus – Monday, April 28
*Game 7 – Columbus Vs. Pittsburgh – Wednesday, April 30
(* denotes if necessary)
You can follow me on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sheavedice