Playoff preview: Penguins vs. Blue Jackets

Pittsburgh Penguins vs Columbus Blue Jackets

Team Records and Head-to-Head

Penguins – 51-24-7, 109 points. Goals F/A – 249-207. Fenwick Close – 50.2%

Blue Jackets – 43-32-7, 93 points. Goals F/A – 231-216. Fenwick Close – 50.8%

Season Matchup – Penguins won all five matchups against Columbus by a combined score of 16-7

On its face, losing each of five matchups in regulation during the season would not bode well for the Columbus Blue Jackets as they aim to finally win their first postseason game in their thirteenth year of existence. Looking a little bit deeper, we can see an odd circumstance that removes some of Pittsburgh’s advantage. In the teams’ first head-to-head matchup of the year, on November 1, Sergei Bobrovsky surrendered three goals on thirteen shots and was lifted from the game only three minutes into the second period. Bob did not suit up against the Penguins in any of their four remaining matches, as backup Curtis McElhinney took four for the team. With Bobrovsky in net, having overcome a slow start to the season to put up a respectable defense of his Vezina Trophy winning season, the Blue Jackets should present a much sterner challenge to the Penguins than they have during the regular season.

Offense GVT

Pittsburgh – 22.9 GVT,

Columbus – 6.9 GVT.

Advantage – Pittsburgh – 16

If you are reading a playoff preview on Hockeyprospectus.com, then you already know that Sidney Crosby is the best player on the planet. Not only does his 26.1 total GVT lead all comers, but his 21.6 offensive GVT is nearly three full goals above runner-up Corey Perry (18.7). If we replaced the remaining 11 regular forwards with replacement level talent, the Penguins would still own a slight offensive edge over the Blue Jackets. Thankfully for all but Blue Jacket fans, the Penguins have a few more upper echelon offensive players, including former Conn Smythe Trophy winner Evgeni Malkin and snipers James Neal and Chris Kunitz. With secondary offense from the likes of Jussi Jokinen, Matt Niskanen, Olli Maatta, Kris Letang (now healthy) and Lee Stempniak, Pittsburgh cannot easily be matched up by Columbus’ top blueline pairing of Fedor Tyutin and Jack Johnson. While those two performed admirably in the face of very difficult circumstances, they will need more backline support to stave off a Pittsburgh onslaught.

The Blue Jackets have only one producer who can stand up to the production expected from the likes of Neal and Kunitz. Finally showing the promise that saw Columbus select him with the fourth overall choice of the 2010 draft, Ryan Johansen scored 33 goals and topped 60 points, both career firsts. Columbus has a few more players who can produce, including James Wisniewski, Cam Atkinson and Brandon Dubinsky, but none will lead to sleepless nights in Pittsburgh. If the Blue Jackets can be said to hold an offensive advantage over the Penguins, it is in their ability to roll four full lines with at least competent scoring ability. The Pittsburgh top six is fearsome, but the dropoff to the bottom six is severe. Little separates the Columbus fourth line from their second and at least one game will hinge on that disparity.

Defense GVT

Pittsburgh – 10.3 Defensive GVT, 0.7 Goaltending GVT. 11 total defensive GVT

Columbus – -3.1 Defensive GVT, 8.7 Goaltending GVT. 5.6 total defensive GVT

Advantage – Pittsburgh – 5.4

While the numbers here side with Pittsburgh, the story on the ice is not so clear. One major differentiator between regular season and postseason play is the almost complete exclusion of backup netminders. The difference between Bobrovsky and Marc-Andre Fleury is more stark than the above cited GVT numbers suggest, as they include the regular season work of both teams’ second stringers – neither of whom is expected to see even a minute of ice time in the first round, health permitting.

While the overall numbers are close, the Blue Jackets have done a better job than the Penguins this season of preventing shots on their own net in Fenwick Close situations, while also stopping more of the shots that do get through. Pittsburgh plays a more offensive scheme that might be exploitable if defensemen Kris Letang and/or Paul Martin show any rust from their long injury layoffs. Although the Blue Jackets face similar concerns with the recently healthy status of emerging rookie Ryan Murray, as with their forward lines, they have seven defensemen whom they trust in all situations.

PP/PK GVT

Pittsburgh – 16.2 power play GVT (23.4% success rate),  5.1 shorthanded GVT (85% success rate).

Columbus – 2.9 power play GVT (19.3% success rate), 2.1 shorthanded GVT (82.1% success rate)

Special Teams advantage – Pittsburgh – 16.6

The special teams battle is very simple. The Penguins have the best power play in the postseason, if not the entire NHL. With a top half that is chock-full of All-World players, it would be surprising if they were not so deadly. Columbus plays a very physical game, ranking second league wide in total hits – bearing in mind the caveat that it is not a perfect stat, only a telling one. They are also in the top third for minor penalties taken. To have any chance to upset the Penguins, Columbus coach Todd Richards will need to preach a far more disciplined game than his team managed this season.

The Blue Jackets are average to slightly above average on both special teams units.

Key match-up

Sergei Bobrovsky vs Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal and Chris Kunitz

As mentioned above, Sergei Bobrovsky has seen very little of the Pittsburgh snipers this season. More importantly, those snipers have seen precious little of Bobrovsky. They also did not see him at all last year as the lockout-shortened season prevented cross-conference games, which comes into play here as Columbus was a Western Conference team prior to this season. If the Pittsburgh scouts have identified any weakness in Bob’s game, they would be the first to do so since he was jettisoned from Philadelphia.

Key stat

114-104

The first number represents the combined points contributed by the top two scorers from Columbus, Johansen and Wisniewski. The latter number represents the points scored by Sidney Crosby, all by his lonesome. For as much Columbus has better team depth, if Sidney is on his game, it will not matter.

Prediction

Penguins in seven. The Blue Jackets have the makings of a truly competitive team for years to come, but for now they will have to settle for being the first rendition of the Columbus franchise to register a postseason win. This series will be closer than the relative seedings suggest, but elite talent will win out in the end.

Ryan Wagman is a long-time author of Hockey Prospectus including his Zamboni Tracks transactions column, a contributor to several HP annuals, contributor to ESPN Insider, and long-suffering Toronto Maple Leafs supporter.

Wagman

Follow Ryan on Twitter at @RAWagman.

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