If all you looked at was the regular-season series between these two geographic rivals -- thrown together in the same division this season thanks to realignment -- then you'd presume the star-studded Pittsburgh Penguins will have their way with the underdog Columbus Blue Jackets after winning all five regular-season games. And it might yet turn out that way, but I don't think so.
No team has highlighted the disconnect that can sometimes exist between regular-season success and a long playoff run than the Penguins in recent years. They were swept last spring by Boston in the Eastern Conference finals, which was the first time they'd advanced beyond the second round since their magical march to the 2009 Stanley Cup. At the crux of whether the high-scoring Pens (fifth in the league, second in the Eastern Conference in goals per game and second overall on the power play) can return to contender form starts in goal with Marc-Andre Fleury. His recent playoff hiccups have become the stuff of legend. But in some ways, perhaps being somewhat off the "contender radar" for the first time in years will work in the Penguins' favor.
The Blue Jackets, meanwhile, are entering just their second playoff tournament and have never won a postseason game, although they are coming off a season during which they established franchise records for wins and points. The offense is deceiving, as they ranked 13th in goals per game, they have one of the hottest young stars in the game in Ryan Johansen and have the defending Vezina Trophy winner in Sergei Bobrovsky.
Penguins: Marc-Andre Fleury
Let's begin and end with Fleury. The former No. 1 overall pick had 39 wins -- second in the league -- and was for the most part excellent for a team that was the league leader in a landslide in man games lost to injury. But he was given the hook after four playoff games last season in favor of Tomas Vokoun and never started another playoff game. There is no safety net this season, with Vokoun just now recovering from surgery to deal with blood clotting issues and backup Jeff Zatkoff in his first full NHL season. The Pens will sink or swim with the man who won 30 postseason games between 2008 and 2009.
Blue Jackets: Inexperience in postseason
When the Blue Jackets take the ice Wednesday night, 13 players will be stepping into their first playoff competition. The rest of the roster has only modest playoff experience, as the only player with a Stanley Cup ring, Nathan Horton, is out of action having undergone surgery for an abdominal injury. Horton's loss might be more symbolic than real, given his injury-plagued season (he played in only 36 games), but the challenge for head coach Todd Richards, who got his pro start with the Penguins' organization and actually hired Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma as an assistant with the team's AHL franchise, will be keeping his team on task, especially in the first couple of games, where emotions will be high and the Penguins can be expected to try to get to the inexperienced Blue Jackets early on.
Hero In Waiting
Penguins: Kris Letang
To say this season has been an emotional roller coaster for defenseman Kris Letang would be a gross understatement. Uneven play kept last season's Norris Trophy finalist off the Canadian Olympic team, and then he suffered a stroke at the end of January that threw his career into doubt. But Letang returned late in the regular season and has played well in the two games in which he appeared, averaging almost 23 minutes in ice time and picking up a goal and two assists. He did not have a good playoff a year ago, turning the puck over with alarming regularity, but has the potential to be a difference-maker for the Penguins.
Blue Jackets: Boone Jenner
Ryan Johansen was the team's leader in goals and points by a wide margin, and it's clear the Penguins will be focused on limiting his chances to continue his offensive dominance, which is why the Blue Jackets will have to find other sources of offense. Well, what about big Boone Jenner? The 20-year-old, 6-foot-2 center has been a catalyst to the Blue Jackets' late-season surge. He had three goals and three assists in his last five games and has been a dangerous presence around opposing nets at crucial times in recent games.
Although the Pens finished a respectable 10th in goals allowed per game, the reality is that they have a penchant for going sideways in terms of their defensive structure. Now, part of that is a function of having missed important defensive pieces Paul Martin, Rob Scuderi, Brooks Orpik and Letang at various points, which means rookies such as Olli Maatta have had to take on roles they might not otherwise have filled. As we mentioned, Fleury is key to keeping the puck out of the net, but he has to have help from his comrades in terms of not making egregious turnovers, not being careless with the puck in their own zone and picking up opposing shooters.
Blue Jackets: Offensive star power
Johansen led the team with 33 goals and no one else on the Blue Jackets' roster had more than 22. Can an offense by committee work? Sure. But that means the committee has to be engaged and take advantage of the opportunities presented, whether that's on the power play, which ranked 10th, or 5-on-5, where they were 15th in the league. If not, well, this one could be over in a hurry.
The Blue Jackets are one of the feel-good stories of this season and the response from the local fans has been tremendous. We're expecting this to be a tough, entertaining series. But we think Fleury will steady the ship and the Penguins will simply be too much for the playoff newbies from down the road. Penguins in 6