For better or for worse, it looks all but certain that the Pens will face a divisional rival in the first round of the playoffs. Even if they don’t — in the unlikely event that they either pass Washington for the first seed or slip back into the wild card slot — they will ever more certainly face a Metro team at some point in the road to the Final. The Metropolitan Division has been the best division in hockey throughout the season, and, despite the Flyers falling out of the playoff picture and the Blue Jackets coming down to Earth just a tad, it still seems like a deathtrap. Here’s a look at how the Pens would stack up against the Met teams they might face in round one:
(Disclaimer: these assessments are made under the assumption that Conor Sheary, Kris Letang, Bryan Rust, Trevor Daley, and Olli Maatta are healthy come playoff time. Obviously, things change if that’s not the case. But, they are currently expected to be healthy before the end of the regular season.)
For much of the time since the calendar flipped to 2017, it has seemed like Pens-Blue Jackets in the first round is inevitable. The two teams have been in second and third in the Metro for virtually that entire time, hopping over each other numerous times. This is certainly the most likely scenario, barring the Rangers passing one of the two, or somebody overtaking the Capitals for first place.
CBJ’s biggest advantage is their defense. They have two D-men — Seth Jones and Zach Werenski — who have 35 or more points thus far this season. Any way you slice it, having two defenders combine to match Sidney Crosby’s point total is nice. And, though plus/minus isn’t always a telling stat, it is worth noting that the Jackets’ entire D corps is in the plus, and they have three defensemen at plus-17 or higher. Combine that with some injury concerns for the Pens D corps, and this is the most obvious area of concern for the Penguins in a series against Columbus.
Offense is where the scales start tipping towards the Pennsylvania side of the border. The Pens have three players — Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel — in the top 12 in scoring. Combine that with the returns of Conor Sheary and Bryan Rust and the emergence of Jake Guentzel, and anyone facing the Penguins is going to have trouble matching them goal for goal.
The Jackets don’t have much scoring depth. Their top scorer, Cam Atkinson, has been having a really solid season, but has only scored 55 points (as of the morning of 3/7/17), well below the level of a Crosby or a Malkin. Next is Alexander Wennberg (yawn), then you get into the territory of Columbus forwards who are being outscored by Justin Schultz. You get the picture. The Pens should be able to outscore this group. Even adjusting for CBJ’s stout defense, the Pens’ defensive deficiencies — Maatta’s off year, or any potential injuries — should be issues that Mike Sullivan can work around, given the relatively low number of weapons the Jackets have up front. And, the bottom line is that the Jackets’ D corps, however talented and impressive this season, is young and has not been put through a tempest like facing the Pens offense in four, five, six or seven straight games at playoff intensity.
In goal, things look pretty even, but the Jackets may hold a slight advantage. Sergei Bobrovsky’s save percentage of .929 is comparable to Matt Murray’s .925, but his GAA of 2.05 is solidly ahead of Murray’s 2.35. Murray could be fresher come playoff time, though, because he’s only appeared in 38 games this season, to Bobrovsky’s 51. That’s thanks to the Penguins holding onto Marc Andre Fleury this year despite Murray being the clear-cut starter. We’ve seen what can happen when a goalie is ridden in the regular season and isn’t fresh in the postseason — Fleury may have been affected by fatigue during his dreadful playoffs in 2012 or 2013. Fleury also serves as a good insurance policy for the Pens; if Murray gets hurt, the Pens have a Stanley Cup winning starter on the bench, whereas the Jackets have a Curtis McElhinney.
One other plus on the Murray side of the ledger is that he’s won a Stanley Cup as a starter. Aside from game one against the Rangers (remember #MrGameOne Zatkoff), Murray was the starter for all of the Pens’ playoff wins during last year’s playoff run. Bobrovsky has nine career playoff starts, six of them with Columbus. Those six were all against the Pens in 2014, a series in which the Jackets lost to a deeply flawed Pittsburgh team.
If the Pens and Jackets meet in the postseason, it should be a very evenly matched series. I’ll take the pronounced offensive advantage over a middling defensive advantage and say that the Pens should be favored a bit in this matchup.