Is it Wednesday yet?
That is probably the most commonly asked question in and around Columbus this week, and with good reason. We are sitting here on April 14th, and we have important games to talk about. We don’t have to talk about the draft, or free agency, or what next season may look like as of yet. We can focus on watching the Jackets embark on the Stanley Cup playoffs, for only the 2nd time in team history. And not only that, but to see the Jackets play none other than the Pittsburgh Penguins.
My goal here today is to share some keys to who will win this series. I don’t want to dwell in the obvious though (otherwise you wouldn't read it). I’m going to focus on some under the radar keys that will go a long way in determining a winner. With that in mind, let’s have at this, shall we?
The other side of the story – Marc-Andre Fleury: We all know his recent playoff struggles. Jokes have been flying left and right about how he couldn't stop a beach ball, let alone a shot on goal. But what is not getting a lot of play in the media is what Fleury is thinking. He has taken his recent playoff struggles very personally. He came into this season with a big chip on his shoulder. Talk in Pittsburgh coming into the season was should Fleury even rejoin the team? After it was determined that Bylsma was staying in Pittsburgh for this season, one of the first things the Penguins did was give a vote of confidence to Fleury as their number one goaltender. He has taken that and turned it into a nice regular season. He has had many nice regular seasons. The ultimate test comes now that the playoffs are starting. Now let’s remember something from last playoffs. Fleury opened the playoffs with a shutout. It was only after that did it all crumble on him. Truth be told, it wasn’t all on Fleury. He let in many softies. Yet, the bigger issue was the defense, and how wide open opponents were in getting shots on goal. The Pens know all this. They are gonna come into this series with a mindset of making sure Fleury can find his groove early and often. It will be imperative of CBJ to strike quickly, so that doubt can creep back in. If CBJ can get Fleury thinking about his past, that will give them a big psychological advantage, one which you need to have over a team as talented as the Penguins.
Bottom Six Depth: If CBJ does have an advantage right now over the Penguins, it’s in their bottom six forwards. The Pens right now don’t even know who all they will play in those positions as of yet. The Pens acquired Marcel Goc at the deadline to give them Bottom six depth, only to lose him to a lower body injury. Word is that he won’t be ready for Game 1. The Pens have mixed and matched the third line all season. As a result of the line shuffling, there is no chemistry there. With the way CBJ rolls 4 lines at you, CBJ should be able to get some depth scoring against the Pens bottom six, all this while the likes of Crosby, Malkin, Kunitz, Neal are all sitting on the bench. So it will be up to guys like Matt Calvert, Cam Atkinson, Derek MacKenzie and others to provide that depth scoring.
CBJ is better than the NYI – Circle back to last year for a minute. The Pens played Round 1 against the New York Islanders. The Isles gave the Pens everything they could handle, and then some before losing in OT in Game 6. When you look back at that series from last year, the weak link for the Isles was their goalie Evgeni Nabokov. He couldn’t make a big stop for them when the Isles had momentum. This year, the Pens are playing against the reigning Vezina trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky. Goals will be harder to come by. If the Pens find themselves in a pinch, it will be much tougher sledding, given that CBJ is sounder defensively than the Isles were. Offensively, the Jackets and Isles are comparable in goal scoring. CBJ scored 231 goals. The Isles were on pace for 237 had they played 82 games. The point here is this: Those expecting a Pens sweep, better rethink their thoughts. It would be of no surprise if CBJ makes this a long series. CBJ is better overall than the Isles were. Not sure I can say Pens are any better.
CBJ must stop: Evgeni Malkin and James Neal – This to me will be the biggest sign of who comes out on top in this series. Crosby and Kunitz will get theirs. But if CBJ can clamp down on the Pens 2nd line, they are greatly increasing their chances of winning. I single these two out because I see them as having the greatest chance of mentally losing focus on the Pens if things don’t go right. We all know Neal and his careless antics he can pull. Malkin to a lesser degree is the same way. They will each take dumb penalties at the worst times. If you can get them frustrated, you affect not only their 2nd line, but their top Power Play. The effects of this are seen in multiple aspects of their game. It will be up to Brandon Dubinsky’s line to get a bit under the skin of Neal and Malkin. Whoever wins this battle to me wins the series.
Injuries, and chemistry (or lack thereof): It is well documented the injuries the Pens have faced this season. The number of man games lost is over 500. Hall of fame sports writer Dave Molinari points out that the average number of man games lost per game was just under 7 per contest. That is a ridiculous number of injuries. With that, comes a ton of lineup changes and line shuffling. With that, comes trying to find chemistry. The biggest example of this comes when you look at the Pens top line. You have Crosby and Kunitz. What you don’t have is Pascal Dupuis. That is a HUGE loss for the Pens. They really haven’t been able to replace him this season. Now look at the 2nd line. Neal/Malkin and many others have played with them. But there hasn’t been a staple with them. The bottom six as documented above has been shuffled numerous times. Now healthy bodies are coming back. Yet, they haven’t played a lot together. What does this mean? To me, it means that it could take time to redevelop (or develop) chemistry. CBJ has a great opportunity to expose this. A bad pass here, a mistimed play there, a miscommunication later on, could all lead to great scoring chances for CBJ. If CBJ can score early on, that will put even more pressure on the Pens to find that chemistry in a short amount of time. Let doubt creep in, you never know what could happen.
There you have it. These are the five things I will be watching for as this series starts out. Remember, #WeAreThe5thLine. Tweet this every chance you get. Let’s show Pittsburgh that we are a hockey town!!!!