The Penguins (111 points) take on Columbus (108 points) in a first-round series more fit to be a conference final. The losing team’s fans will complain heartily about the NHL playoff format. The winning team’s fans will be consumed by their logo still playing.
It’s a hard series to draw a bead on.
Seven of ESPN’s 10 hockey experts predict the Penguins will win. That’s shocking. Not the pick, but that ESPN has 10 people they feel can be passed off as hockey experts.
Columbus lost six of its last seven. The Jackets were the victim of a thorough 4-1 defeat April 4 at PPG Paints Arena. Those occurrences make some think the Penguins may have it easier, if not easy.
But a few questions surround the Penguins. Most of the players are the same, but it’s not the same team that won the Stanley Cup a year ago.
Whether because of injury or fatigue, the Penguins are sloppier than last year. They don’t play as fast. They’re more deliberate. The Penguins need more and better puck possession. The opposition isn’t chasing them as much. The Penguins got outshot in eight of their last nine games.
The Penguins are still very good. Just not as good. Not right now.
The main issues:
*The absence of Kris Letang. Letang’s talents can’t be replaced, not by committee and certainly not by any individual. A butterfly stitch can’t fix a gunshot wound. No Letang is a major reason the Penguins are playing slower. The Penguins will especially miss Letang’s physicality vs. Columbus.
*The potential absence of Evgeni Malkin. Malkin says he’s close. Locker-room sources say it “looks good” for Malkin to play in Game 1. If Malkin was OK to play this past weekend, kudos to Coach Mike Sullivan for not risking him. It’s nice to knock rust off. But Malkin can do that his first few shifts back.
*The condition of Matt Murray. Murray looked a bit gimpy after stopping a breakaway at New Jersey last Thursday, then didn’t even dress for the Penguins’ final two games. Goalie Tristan Jarry hasn’t been sent back to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton like the other temporary call-ups, so there is likely an issue with Murray. Yesterday was an off-day for the Penguins, but Murray reportedly skated and took shots.
If Murray can’t play, Marc-Andre Fleury will. That’s why the Penguins kept Fleury. The team would have absolute trust in Fleury, and should.
*Defense. Not the Penguins’ defensemen. The way the Penguins play defense in general is subpar. They conceded 31 more goals this season than last despite blocking 216 more shots. So it wasn’t worth the seven injuries. Allowing more goals can be traced in part to a decline in puck management.
What happened in the regular season is moot when the puck drops for Game 1. It’s difficult to predict how Columbus comes out.
The Blue Jackets heightened their aggression at Pittsburgh April 4, knocking three Penguins out of the game (two didn’t return). But the Penguins kept their cool and won handily.
Columbus is physical in a calculating, deliberate way. They hit consistently for 60 minutes and the damage is supposed to be cumulative, especially over a seven-game series. The Blue Jackets intend to hurt.
Despite Columbus’ struggles down the stretch, Tortorella is unlikely to reconsider such tactics. But if it fails in Game 1 like it failed April 4, piling that on top of a 1-6 finish might deflate the Jackets’ already shaky confidence.
The Penguins are better than Columbus even without Letang – but maybe not without Malkin.
If Malkin doesn’t play, the Penguins’ biggest advantage, at the center position, is less pronounced. The Jackets’ top center, Alexander Wennberg, has just 13 goals. That’s the same as the Penguins’ fourth center, Matt Cullen.
Lots of variables are in play.
But the Penguins win in seven. If Malkin doesn’t return by Game 2, the Blue Jackets have a chance. A better chance than the Penguins would have against Washington after surviving a seven-game series with Columbus.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).