5 and 0.
Leading up to the beginning of the Jackets/Pens series, that's all you heard. Oh, the Pens went 5-0 in the regular season against the Jackets. A vast majority, but not everybody, thought that this would be a pushover series for the Pens. Many deemed this a "good match up" for them. It wasn't the Flyers. It wasn't the Red Wings. Instead, it was against a team who was only making its 2nd ever trip to the postseason. And to top that off, it was against a team who had never won a playoff game in their franchise history.
However! A closer look at things actually paints a completely different picture. And quite honestly, we all should have seen this one coming.
Today, we are going to look at the key contributing factors which indicate why this series in fact is tied going into Game 5 tonight. As you will see, the pieces were already in place prior to the start of the series to indicate that this was going to be a very close series. Some of those factors were easy to see. Others not so much, but a little digging into the facts will bring these to light.
1. Playing styles: When comparing these two teams, one of the first things that should stick out is the contrast of playing styles. Pens love up and down, lots of scoring chances. Jackets love that in your face, grinding style that can wear teams out. One key component to this that I think often gets overlooked here is this: The style the Jackets play is the Western Conference style of hockey. Of course, that's where they were until this year. It's the kind of hockey that can downright frustrate you when things are clicking. The Jackets have been able to do a great job for the most part (sans the moments where Pens score in quick bunches) of playing their style of game. Think for a second about waves in the middle of the ocean. They keep coming relentlessly. Eventually, when you get hit by these waves enough, you don't wanna be hit anymore. You lose your desire to want to be in that situation. The Jackets send lines out (all 5 of them, see what I did there?) like these waves in the ocean. Eventually, it starts to wear on the opposition. It hurts. Anyone who plays this kind of style with consistency and success will more often than not be in every game. To play this style is one thing, but to be able to score and stop the other team from scoring while playing this style is something else totally. This leads us to our next factor.
2. Jackets can do it all: Here is something that a lot of those who don't follow the Jackets don't realize. The Jackets finished in the upper half of the league in goals for, goals against, and goal differential. They were tied for 13th in goals for, and 11th in both goals against and goal differential. In other words, the Jackets were more or less a top 10 team in those aspects. They didn't get there by accident. So let's put 1 and 2 together. They play a style that is bruising, a style that rolls 4 lines, and a style in which they can score. That adds up to winning in my book.
3. Familiarity: When you play a team five times in the season, independent of how the games turned out, you will get to know each other some. You see how they handle a lot of different situations. That knowledge is key. You can game plan around tendencies that are picked up in these games. In other words, the most important lesson from the game is not that you lost, is that you see how they played certain situations. So when the next game rolls around, you will be ready for it. Clearly the Jackets have demonstrated this. Couldn't win in regular season. But they're winning now when it matters most.
4. Leadership: Here is my favorite one, and it's one that isn't getting very much play. Going into this series, ask yourself this question. "Which team has more leadership?" Many would probably answer the Pens due to the star power they have, and oodles of playoff experience. Here's my question back to you then, "Are you sure about that answer?" They may have stars, and they may have experience. But is leadership based on those factors? Last I checked, you can be a leader and not considered a "star". Last I checked, you can be a leader and have never played in a playoff game before. Leadership goes way beyond these things. In fact, I believe there is more leadership on the Jackets than there is on the Penguins. There, I said it. Seriously though. Look at both teams right now, and try to convince me otherwise. There is an interesting dynamic going on right now. This is where I believe not having a captain proves very large. Take a look at guys like Jack Johnson, and Brandon Dubinsky, and Nick Foligno, and they way they are carrying themselves and the team right now. They are setting an example for the team to follow, and it is paying huge dividends. You just don't see this with the Pens right now. The best example of leadership actually came in the form of the owner, Mario Lemieux. After Game 4, he went to the locker room and specifically went to visit Marc Andre Fleury. They even had a conversation in French. Now that's leadership. Lemieux always had it. Notice none of the players have done things like this. Pens are a very prideful bunch. It's biting them big time now.
So all things considered, we have an even match up. It is not at all surprising we are in this spot. The evidence was there even before this series began. And guess what, it will not be at all surprising if the Jackets win this series. Let's stop being surprised at what is unfolding here. The reality is that the Jackets are here to stay, and it's only gonna get better from here.