For only the second time in franchise history, the Columbus Blue Jackets have earned a playoff berth, and on Wednesday will begin their quest for Lord Stanley's Cup. As if the Blue Jackets being in the playoffs wasn't enough for you, they also will have former Ohio State Buckeye, R.J. Umberger trying to help playoff beards around Columbus grow a little bit longer than back in 2009.
When the Blue Jackets competed in the 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs they drew the Detroit Red Wings, and the first trip to the postseason ended with a 4-0 sweep by Detroit. This year will again see Columbus square off with one of the best teams in the conference but instead of looking towards the north, this time they'll look to the east.
The Pittsburgh Penguins finished second in the Eastern Conference with 51 wins and 109 points. Two of the best players on the planet, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, star for the Penguins. Pittsburgh defeated Detroit in seven games in the Stanley Cup Finals back in that same 2009 playoffs where Detroit swept Columbus. Crosby led the Penguins with 36 goals and 104 points, while Malkin accounted for 72 points in 60 games.
History hasn't been on the side of the Blue Jackets this year when they've played the Penguins this year, dropping all five meetings between the teams. The good news for Columbus is they'll have Sergei Bobrovsky between the pipes, who only played in one of the five meetings this year. The only matchup Bobrovsky played in was the first meeting on November 1st, when he was chased after just 23 minutes when he gave up three goals on 13 shots in the 4-2 Pittsburgh win.
One reason for a little bit of optimism for Columbus fans that this series won't be as lopsided as the regular season series is that only one of the meetings has happened after the calendar turned to 2014. The teams faced off in Columbus on March 28th in what would end with the Penguins gaining a 2-1 road win. For most of the game the score sat at 2-0 before Chris Kunitz and Beau Bennett scored less than a minute apart midway through the third period. The win clinched a playoff spot for Pittsburgh, but little did the Penguins know that wouldn't be the last game they would play this season at Nationwide Arena.
Another optimistic view on this series for Blue Jacket fans is in the last few years there have been a rash of upsets in the 2/7 first round matchups. Last year Ottawa took down Montreal in the East, while out West Detroit dispatched Anaheim. In 2012 Washington defeated Boston, and in 2010 Philadelphia topped New Jersey. The NHL playoffs seem to produce a good number of lower seeded teams pulling the upset.
One reason you tend to see more of upsets in the NHL playoffs is if a hot goalie can get in the head of his opponents and carry his team. The Blue Jackets have the perfect goalie to carry them, as they'll put reigning Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky between the pipes. Bobrovsky posted 32 of Columbus' franchise-record 43 wins this year. In 58 starts this season, Bobrovsky posted five shutouts, a 2.38 goals against average, and a .923 save percentage. The Russian goalie will have plenty on his plate against Crosby, Malkin, Chris Kunitz, and the rest of the potent Penguins attack.
Marc-Andre Fleury will be Bobrovsky's opposing number throughout the series. Fleury's registered 39 wins, a 2.37 goals against average, five shutouts, and a .915 save percentage. While their numbers are similar, one thing that Fleury has in his favor is playoff experience. Fleury was the goaltender during Pittsburgh's Stanley Cup run.
One thing Columbus can't afford to do is get into high-scoring battles with Pittsburgh. If that does happen I don't think the Blue Jackets will have quite enough firepower to keep up. The leading goal getter for Columbus this year was Ryan Johansen, who lit the lamp 33 times. The rest of the offense for the Blue Jackets was more on a by-committee basis.Artem Anisimov tallied 22 goals and Cam Atkinson added 21 to give Columbus three players with 20+ goals. Former Buckeye R.J. Umberger scored 18 goals during the campaign, but with his previous playoff experience it wouldn't be a surprise to see him net a few during the series.
Win or lose, the best thing to come out of this series is the return of playoff hockey to Columbus. While there is a limited history of that so far, what better time to try and build some history than now? This team is young and only getting better, so hopefully this is the start of a string of playoff appearances. There isn't anything quite like playoff hockey, and it's about time Columbus gets another crack at it. Nationwide Arena is gonna be rocking like no other in games three and four, and with any like there will be a few more games there after that this year. Now go FIRE THAT CANNON, Columbus!