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PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – It seems like just yesterday that we were celebrating the Pittsburgh Penguins’ fourth Stanley Cup.
What a ride it was, but here we are on the verge of another emotional roller coaster better known as the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
It’s been an interesting year for the Penguins, who enter hockey’s second season as the No. 2 seed in the Metropolitan Division bracket.
The team finished the regular season with 111 points, despite an injury list that at times was longer than the city’s three rivers.
The Penguins’ reward for overcoming that adversity is a first round matchup with the team with the third-best record in the Eastern Conference and fourth-best record in the entire league – the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Much like last year, the Penguins will face a tough road in the Eastern Conference.
But, in order to take the next step on the road to a repeat, they must overcome a physical Blue Jackets team.
So, how can they do that? Here are five keys to the series:
1. Get Traffic In Front Of Bobrovsky
This series will feature one of the best goaltending battles in the entire first round – Matt Murray vs. Sergei Bobrovsky. (Another great matchup will be Henrik Lundqvist vs. Carey Price. Can’t wait for that.)
Bobrovsky led the league in save percentage (.931) and had the best GAA of any starting goaltender (2.06). He was also second overall in wins (41). His seven shutouts were tied for third in the league as well.
In short, he’s pretty good and is having a great year.
Like any great goalie, he can’t stop what he can’t see, so getting bodies to the paint will be vital for the Penguins. This is where you love having a guy like Patric Hornqvist on your team. He’s made a career off going to the crease and tormenting goalies. He takes an absolute beating in front, but he thrives off it.
You can see the effect his play has on the rest of the team as well.
No shot will be a bad one with guys screening Bobrovsky. If the initial shot doesn’t go in, being in the right position for rebounds is just as good. Ugly goals are beautiful this time of year and they all count the same on the scoreboard.
2. Ignore Dubinsky & Others
Look, the history between Sidney Crosby and Brandon Dubinsky is well documents. We all know what’s going to happen early in Game 1.
Anyway, Dubinsky will likely be matched up with the Crosby line and will take some unnecessary shot at him. It will likely be a theme in the series.
In their last meeting, Boone Jenner was another member of the Blue Jackets taking liberties after the whistle. If the Blue Jackets think they are going to intimidate the Penguins with those kind of shenanigans, they’ve got another thing coming.
In previous years, the Penguins very well may have given in and tried to retaliate. That kind of play doomed a couple playoff series that we don’t need to re-live. But, that wasn’t the case last year.
Head coach Mike Sullivan has been able to get this team to largely turn the other cheek and just keep playing. If the opponent wants to put themselves in the box, the Penguins will go to work on the power play to make them pay.
It sounds obvious, but picking their spots to get even will go a long way toward the Penguins winning this series.
3. Special Teams
Speaking of the power play, specials teams play gets magnified in the playoffs. Considering that these two teams split the regular season series and finished just three points apart in the standings, special teams could be a huge factor in the series.
In the regular season, the Penguins’ power play finished tied for third with the Washington Capitals (23.1 percent). At home, that number spiked to 26.5 percent.
Meanwhile, the Blue Jackets were 12th overall at 19.9 percent.
As for killing penalties, the Blue Jackets were tied for ninth at 82.5 percent. Pittsburgh was 20th at 79.8 percent, which was down from 84.4 percent at year ago.
Now, the Penguins’ big penalty killers have been hit hard by injuries this season, which could explain the dip.
For reference, the Penguins had an impressive 85.1 percent kill rate during last year’s playoffs.
They’ll need to get back closer to that number in order to improve their odds in this series.
4. Experience Factor
The Penguins enter this series with a distinct advantage in terms of experience. While the Blue Jackets have the likes of Brandon Saad, Scott Hartnell and Dubinsky, the rest of the lineup is relatively thin on playoff experience as compared to the Penguins.
While these teams certainly are quite familiar with one another, the playoffs are a different animal. The Penguins know what it takes to win this time of year and could take advantage of a wide-eyed Blue Jackets team early in the series.
It won’t be a total baptism by fire like the Penguins experienced at the hands of the Ottawa Senators in 2007. But, if the Penguins come out flying and on a mission, it could be enough to gain an early edge they can ride to a series win.
5. Home-Ice Advantage
The Penguins played 40 games at PPG Paints Arena this season and won 30 of them. There was also that home win at Heinz Field in the NHL Stadium Series game against the Flyers.
Basically, the Penguins have done very well playing in front of the home fans this season. Their road record left a bit to be desired at 19-15-7, but it’s always tougher to win on the road, especially in the playoffs.
There is no doubt PPG Paints Arena will be rocking when the puck drops for Game 1. The fans can absolutely have an impact on the outcome on the ice. Fans should get as loud as possible, wave their towels and make it as intimidating an environment as humanly possible.
I remember being in attendance for Game 7 against the Tampa Bay Lightning a year ago. It was so loud that you could barely hear Ryan Mill on the PA system. I’m not exaggerating. It was insanely loud and was one of the most amazing things I’d witnessed at a live game. The building shook to its core even before the puck dropped.
You can’t tell me the Penguins’ players didn’t get a boost from that or that the Lightning stopped and took note of the surroundings.
Anyway, if all goes according to plan, the Penguins will take a 2-0 lead into Columbus this weekend, where a split would work out just fine.
Of course, that’s in a perfect world.
This isn’t the matchup I would have wanted to see in the first round. It shouldn’t even be allowed, honestly. (Read more about that here.)
It’s not a fear of Columbus. It’s more about how much this series will take out of the Penguins as they look to become the first team to repeat as champs in nearly two decades.
There is nothing about this series that leads me to believe it will be a quick one. It won’t be anything like the Penguins breezing by the New York Rangers in the first round a year ago.
The Penguins will be made to earn every single one of the four victories necessary to advance to the second round. It will be physical. It will be nasty at times. It will be an all out war and should be highly entertaining.
In the end, I think the Penguins are the more skilled team and will be too much for Columbus in the long run. Combine that with their experience and I see the Penguins winning in six games.