The peculiarities of the NHL playoffs divisional format determined a 1st round confront between two of top four teams during the regular season as the Pittsburgh Penguins renewed hostilities with the Columbus Blue Jackets three years after their first and only postseason battle.
In 2014, after six hard-fought encounters, the Pens marched on by disposing of their industrious opponent, and the same fate was destined this time, with the firepower of the star-laden defending Champions proving too much for their rivals.
Game 1: Columbus Blue Jackets 1 @ 3 Pittsburgh Penguins
Game 2: Columbus Blue Jackets 1 @ 4 Pittsburgh Penguins
Game 3: Pittsburgh Penguins 5 @ 4 Columbus Blue Jackets (OT)
Game 4: Pittsburgh Penguins 4 @ 5 Columbus Blue Jackets
Game 5: Columbus Blue Jackets 2 @ 5 Pittsburgh Penguins
Columbus fails to capitalize on frantic road starts
Playing a perfect road game in the playoffs usually entails deference to a series of bullet points, and the first item in the list usually calls for a fast start that can temper the home crowd and harness the opponent’s grumble coming out of their locker room.
The Blue Jackets game plan in their playoff debut incorporated these notions and right from the hop they set out to follow it, especially with Marc-André Fleury forced to man the net for the Penguins after Matt Murray’s warmup injury. They wired 16 shots on goal to just 3 from Pittsburgh in the first period, but were unable to find the opener and would pay for it later. The home side scored three in the second to seize control and Game 1 fell to Pittsburgh.
In Game 2, a similar story. With eight minutes played, the Jackets held a 15-2 advantage in shot attempts but a blunder by Sergei Bobrovsky led to a Sidney Crosby tally, and the Penguins were once again in the lead despite making zilch to deserve it. Pittsburgh cruised to a 4-1 final scoreline and 2-0 advantage in the series.
Back in Columbus, the Jackets stuck with their approach but his time reaped the dividends, scoring just 11 seconds into Game 3 and twice more in six minutes to rock their own building. They would let that match slip away, but not the ensuing Game 4, avoiding the sweep by riding their 2-0 advantage after twenty minutes.
However, in Game 5, with the chance to plant the seed of doubt on their opponent, the Jackets clocked six shot attempts in the first three minutes but again failed to make it count. Pittsburgh would score twice in the second period to jump in front and despite peppering Fleury with 51 shots on goal, Columbus wasn’t able to stave off elimination.
Sergei Bobrovsky’s Vezina-level play vanishes in the first round
Russian goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky was, arguably, the driving force behind Columbus franchise-record, 108-points regular season campaign. Still, his career playoff totals were mediocre entering this postseason and the Jackets just couldn’t afford another middling showing – he amassed a 3.17 GAA and 0.908 Sv% against the Pens in the 2013-14 series – if they hoped to outlast Pittsburgh.
Unfortunately for Jon Tortorella’s squad, the 28-year-old was even shoddier this time, posting a 3.88 GAA – tied for worst amongst starters in the first round -, a 0.882 Sv% and 0.898 EV Sv% – both 2nd worst in the NHL – and conceding 10 goals in 37 high-danger shots against (0.729 Sv%). It was a calamitous performance that only Calgary’s Brian Elliot could match in round one, and helped amplify a woeful playoff trend for the Jackets, who have now allowed 3 or more goals in every one of their 15 playoff games.
Individually, in 18 career playoff games (14 starts), Bobrovsky has collected just three wins and compiled a mediocre 3.63 GAA and 0.887 Sv%, numbers completely out of place measured against his massive 7.425M cap hit and simply unacceptable for a goalie of his rank.
The Penguins superstars took over when necessary
The Columbus Blue Jackets carried the play for most of the series, and while you can attribute some of it to score effects, it’s still difficult to explain how they lost in just five games despite a 194-171 edge in SOG or an adjusted 53.7 CF%, second best in the first round to the Minnesota Wild. As referred, the subpar goaltending of Sergei Bobrosvky was a key factor, but we also can’t dismiss the effect having elite offensive talent can have on the outcome. The gap between the teams is steep in that area and it showed.
With the help of a powerplay rolling at 33.3 % (5 of 15), Pittsburgh’s superstars Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel accounted for six goals and 26 pts in five games, and most of those proved absolutely essential to save their team from tricky situations.
Malkin (2 G, 9 A, 11 pts) and Kessel (2 G, 6 A, 8 pts) led all NHL players in points during the first round and their partnership at even strength (87.27 GF%) pulled the matchup Pittsburgh’s way. The duo ended with a sparkling +7 rating and provided the basis for Bryan Rust’s four-goal tally across the series, which included the opener in Game 1, two goals in the second period of Game 3 to rally the team back to 3-3, and another marker in Game 5 to pad the score after Kessel’s short side snap shot with the man advantage broke the ice.
Meanwhile, Crosby (2 G, 5 A, -2 rating), riding alongside rookie Jake Guentzel, also found a way to contribute despite a bumpy matchup at even strength (48.27 CF%, 39 GF%, 46.32 SCF%), featuring on the team’s first two goals in Game 2 before dancing behind the net to set up Guentzel’s overtime winner in Game 3. Furthermore, the Penguins’ captain would put the exclamation point in the series with a powerplay blast that halted the Jackets’ comeback in Game 5.
Best players in the series
Jake Guentzel (Pittsburgh Penguins)
Pittsburgh’s rookie winger closed the regular season on a five-game goal spree and he sustained his form into the playoffs, becoming the first newcomer since Maurice Richard in 1944 to tally five times in his first four playoff games. Guentzel notched the GWG in Game 1 by finishing a two-on-one with Sidney Crosby, but the highlight was definitely the hat-trick in Game 3, which included two identical goals where he deftly banked the puck off Bobrovsky’s body plus the overtime decider on a quick flick from the slot.
At times, his line was goaded into a frenzy of odd-man rushes both ways and his -2 rating showcases that, but you can’t deny Guentzel’s productivity and impact on the series ending.
William Karlsson (Columbus Blue Jackets)
The Jackets third line (Matt Calvert-William Karlsson-Josh Anderson) manufactured two goals in their Game 4 victory, significantly outperformed the opposition (51.32 CF%, 64.29 SCF%, 3-0 GF) and gave the Penguins fits throughout the series with its physicality, so it’s fair they get the spotlight here.
Karlsson, the 24-year-old center, tied for the team lead in goals (2), points (3), +/- (4) and even strength points (3), won a healthy 53.5% of his faceoffs, fired 12 shots on goal and soaked 2:16 min of shorthanded time per game, the most of any Columbus’ forward. Not bad for a playoff debutant.
Will the Columbus Blue Jackets return to the playoffs next year?
In the highly competitive Metropolitan Division, only a couple of teams are safe from a severe tumble down the standings and the Jackets don’t strike as one, so it’s entirely possible they fail to build on this season’s success.
In fact, with a roster populated by pricy, lengthy contracts (Dubinsky, Foligno, Hartnell, even Bobrovsky) that aren’t bound to age well and just 2.9M of cap space for next season, Columbus margin for improvement is rather thin. UFAs Kyle Quincey, Lauri Korpikovski and Sam Gagner, who picked up 18 goals and 50 points this season for just 0.650M, are unlikely to return but that won’t open the necessary breathing room for substantial adjustments.
Top-line center Alexander Wennberg is the team’s notable RFA and Jarmo Kekalainen will have to play his cards right to extend the Swedish pivot long term without further compromising their salary structure. To clear the books, the Finnish GM would love to offload Scott Hartnell’s 4.75M cap hit, but it’s doubtful he’ll find many suitors eager to take on a broken down, 35-year-old forward with two years remaining on his deal.
It helps their cause that Zach Werenski and fellow blueliners Gabriel Carlsson and Markus Nutivaara are still tied up on their entry-level deals, yet more decisions loom around the corner, with defenseman Jack Johnson and Ryan Murray in need of new deals in 2018, just like the team’s leading scorer, winger Cam Atkinson. To muddle things up, LW Pierre-Luc Dubois, the 3rd overall pick in 2016 and their only Grade-A prospect, laboured through an unimpressive, injury-marred season in junior and isn’t ready to crack the lineup just yet.
In short, don’t expect Columbus to contend for the Stanley Cup in the near future unless Kekalainen can work a few miracles along the way.