The Penguins will play Columbus in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs beginning Wednesday. I, for one, am looking forward to this series because it’s a bit of contrast in styles, and if the Penguins are going to win, they need to be gritty and tough-minded.
The Penguins are skilled and can play with speed, and a matchup like this is the perfect way for them to start their Stanley Cup run. They proved last year they’re tough enough, and once they beat the Blue Jackets, they will be battle-tested.
Some people think the Penguins should have tanked and slid to fourth in the Metropolitan Division so they can have an easier path in the playoffs. They would have avoided the Blue Jackets, and the biggest losers in that would have been the fans. The Penguins don’t need to duck anyone and will have to beat four good teams in four consecutive series in order to win the Stanley Cup anyway. The order in which the Penguins play those teams is meaningless. Bottom seeds beat the top seeds from time to time and no series ever seems to be easy, so there is no guarantee the Penguins would beat Montreal in a first-round series.
The Penguins-Blue Jackets series should be an excellent test of the Penguins’ mental toughness. They will have to avoid feeding into what the Blue Jackets will try to do to get under their skin. The Penguins proved Tuesday night that if they play their game, they’re still the better team. The group that won Tuesday was a depleted version of itself, and the Penguins will have a number of players returning to the lineup — Carl Hagelin, Evgeni Malkin, Olli Maatta and Trevor Daley seem to be on track for the start of the playoffs. Add those four players, and the Penguins may be deep enough to win it all, even without Kris Letang.
The more healthy bodies the Penguins have, the better equipped they will be for what should be a fun but brutally physical series with the Blue Jackets. The Penguins proved Tuesday they won’t back away from physicality against Columbus. They also proved they can play the Blue Jackets’ game and beat them at it.
There is obvious concern that the Penguins could be physically spent after a long, brutal series. There is also legitimate concern the Blue Jackets could take some cheap shots that lead to injuries. Blue Jackets center Brandon Dubinsky is an agitator who loves to get under Sidney Crosby’s skin. Six or seven games of Dubinsky against Crosby is cause for at least a little concern, given their history.
Still, this should be a fun series because of the way the Blue Jackets attack the Penguins. Then there’s Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella, the opposing coach who talks too much and Penguins fans love to hate. Tortorella will, no doubt, provide some fun material throughout the series, but his mouth and a couple of cheap shots by Dubinsky are not going to be nearly enough for the Blue Jackets to win.
Columbus is deep, physical and plays good defense and is very tough to beat if it can control the game. However, the Blue Jackets have struggled to score recently and aren’t playing very well. They’ve lost four in a row and six of their past eight. In those eight games, they’ve scored only 12 goals (1.5 per game). They will need to score plenty to beat the Penguins, and I don’t think they will. That’s why I expect the Penguins to win this series, maybe in less than six games.
It won’t be easy, but it sure will be fun.
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