Imagine, if you will, what John Tortorella is thinking at this moment. Lots of swear words will probably flood your head. The Blue Jackets’ outspoken coach, easily the biggest personality on a team still looking for its first playoff series victory, cannot be happy with what he’s seen from his players lately, no matter what he says publicly.
Columbus, with a chance to finish second in the Metropolitan Division and wrestle home ice advantage for their first-round series away from the Penguins, instead made like a bunch of drunks and staggered to the finish at a 1-5-1 clip.
That stretch was a nice punctuation mark on a season defined by two things: the Blue Jackets’ incredible 16-game winning streak, and their utter mediocrity outside of that. After the streak ended, Columbus went a whopping 23-23, which is not the kind of record you’d associate with a genuine playoff threat.
It isn’t that the Blue Jackets don’t have the tools to be a genuine threat; any team with a likely Vezina Trophy winner in goal (Sergei Bobrovsky), a solid mix of skill (Cam Atkinson, Brandon Saad, Nick Foligno) and, uh, let’s charitably call it “grit” (Scott Hartnell, Brandon Dubinsky, and up-and-coming pest Boone Jenner) needs to be taken seriously.
Columbus has problems on two major fronts. One, they still might try to out-tough the Penguins, or to “send a message” with physical play. That was the gameplan eight days ago, when second place in the Metro was still up for grabs, and got slapped around 4-1. Two, they can’t count on Bobrovsky in the postseason. For all his regular-season brilliance, which manifests in a career .923 save percentage, Bobrovsky has been a major flop in the playoffs, with a save percentage of .890.
Oh, there’s a third problem, too. It’s the team that Columbus is playing. You may have heard of them before. They’re the defending Stanley Cup Champions, and they have a habit of, among other things, scoring in bunches and “breaking” otherwise stout goalies.
Sure, they don’t have Kris Letang, arguably their most irreplaceable player, but they do have Sidney Crosby, and they are getting, in the words of head coach Mike Sullivan, a “full go” Evgeni Malkin for Wednesday’s series opener. Couple that with the fact that Sullivan proclaimed starting goalie Matt Murray “fine” after some fears arose that he may have suffered an injury late in the season, and it appears that the Penguins, while not fully healed, will be as healthy as they’ve been in some time when the puck drops Wednesday evening.
Winning it all last year brought Crosby and Malkin within one Cup of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews in Chicago. It’s hard to imagine that tying them and possibly going through them in the process isn’t a huge motivating factor for the Pens’ two stars -- especially Crosby. It has to be galling for him to hear a player like Toews spoken about in reverential terms because of his three Cup wins, even though statistically and objectively, he is not in Crosby’s league, or even in the NHL’s top ten.
The Penguins haven’t exactly cruised through this season and gotten complacent. They’ve had to battle major injury issues, plenty of adversity and have had to rely on young, hungry players from the minor leagues to supplement their roster. There has been no sophomore slump thus far for Sullivan, and his players seem to have a healthy edge about them. Crosby and Malkin appear to have matured even more, and aren’t susceptible to the kind of cheap, roughhouse tactics that the Blue Jackets have tried to rely on in the past. All of this is bad news for Columbus.
John Tortorella can try to coach his guys up all he wants. His team has toughness. His team has talent. Just not nearly enough of either to handle the monumental task (of) facing the Penguins, starting tonight.
Pens in six.
Chris Mueller is the co-host of the 'Starkey & Mueller Show' weekdays from 2-6 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.