It was a pretty clear consensus among hockey fans everywhere that this series against the Blue Jackets was going to be the most exciting 1st round match-up of these 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs…
- The Penguins and Jackets were the 2nd and 4th best teams in the NHL, respectively, at the end of the regular season.
- The Penguins and Jackets finished 1st (278) and 6th (247) in goals for, respectively.
- The Jackets were 2nd in the NHL in goals against (193) while the Pens were 17th (229)
- In their 4 game series during the regular season, both teams went 2-0 on home ice, each team winning 1 game in overtime.
- Sergei Bobrovsky had an incredible regular season, and will likely be crowned the Vezina Trophy winner.
- The Blue Jackets almost broke an NHL record, winning 16 games in a row in the regular season.
- The Penguins would enter the playoffs without their star defenseman, Kris Letang, which many predicted would be a huge blow to the Penguins.
With all of this information going into game 1, the majority of the hockey world still felt the Penguins would win, but almost everyone you asked would have told you that the series was going at least 6 games.
But don’t take it from me…
Of the 25 people with The Hockey Writers, 17 of the 25 had the Penguins winning the series, but of the 17 that picked the Penguins to win, 15 of them predicted the series to end in either 6 or 7 games, with a lone 2 writers picking the Penguins to win in 5. In addition, all of the 12 ESPN expert analysts had this series going at least 6 games, while 3 of them picked the Jackets to dethrone the Stanley Cup Champs in 7. No one picked either team to win in 5 games.
So, how were the Penguins able to beat the Jackets in just 5 games, despite coming out flat in almost every game, despite going down 3-1 early on the road in a raucous Nationwide Arena in game 3, despite playing one of their worst games in game 4, despite not playing their best hockey consistently throughout the series, and despite missing their top defender, top goaltender, and 2 other skaters, Hagelin and Kunitz, that would usually be in the lineup when healthy?
Here are my main reasons and analysis for the Penguins’ dominant five game victory over the fourth best team in the NHL regular season, the Columbus Blue Jackets:
The Emergence of Marc-Andre Fleury
Marc-Andre Fleury was the surprise starter of game 1, as Matt Murray re-aggravated an injury likely sustained against his last appearance against the New Jersey Devils. Fleury had a subpar season to say the least, posting a .909 save percentage and a 3.02 GAA with an 18-10-7 record along with it. We all know what Fleury is capable of, but with him being named the starter just minutes before the game, with his stats this year, and with some of his playoff woes in years past, many including myself were worried about Fleury, wondering which Marc-Andre would show up.
Could the Pens still win this series with Fleury in the cage?
The answer? Absolutely. In fact, if I told you at the beginning of this series that the Pens could beat the Jackets in 5 with Fleury in goal, many would call me crazy. I might have called myself crazy, to be honest.
Any critics of Fleury during the regular season sat in silence during game 1, as the Flower stopped 31 of 32 shots, including all 16 he faced in a 1st period dominated by Columbus, looking as good as he ever has in his career. He followed that performance with a just as impressive game 2, stopping 39 of the 40 shots he faced.
He struggled early in game 3, letting in 3 of his first 6 shots faced. The Fleury of 2012 would have continued to struggle, and this game likely would have gotten way out of hand. But Fleury would not let that happen. He stopped 30 of his final 31 shots he faced, including this incredible save on Dubinksy in OT:
Fleury struggled in game 4 as well, allowing 5 goals in a 5-4 loss in a potential series clinching win. However, one could hardly blame Fleury entirely for the loss, as the defense was near inexistent. Fleury bailed out his defense on multiple occasions and kept his team in the game, giving them a chance to pull off another comeback.
Fleury responded to 2 below average performances with a great one in game 5, sealing up the series for the Pens. He surrendered 2 goals on 51 shots, and helped his team seal the deal against the Jackets. Fleury really seems to thrive on playing in front of the home crowd at PPG Paints Arena.
Marc-Andre Fleury needed to step up, and he absolutely did. Despite Fleury’s stats being extremely subpar in the 2 games in Columbus, he made so many timely saves, ended with spectacular stats, and helped the Penguins finish off the Jackets quicker than many thought they would. If Murray is healthy for the start of the next series, it will be interesting who draws the game 1 start, but since Fleury has been playing and winning, the crease likely remains his until his play says otherwise.
The Stars Are Shining
Despite the Penguins going into this series without Kris Letang, they are still loaded with talent, especially up front with Crosby, Malkin, and Kessel. In the playoffs, the big name guys need to be the best players in order to have a chance at a Stanley Cup. It’s as simple as that.
The Penguins’ stars have answered the bell.
Evgeni Malkin has a whopping 11 points in 5 games, which leads the NHL in the early going of the playoffs. This includes 2 goals, one of which tied the game for the Penguins in game 3.
Crosby has 7 points in 5 games, tallying 2 goals and 5 assists. One of his goals got the Penguins on the board in game 2 after being outshot 8-0 in the early stages of the 1st, his other goal gave the Pens an important 2 goal lead in the 3rd in game 5, and 1 of his 4 assists came on Jake Guentzel’s overtime winning goal in game 3, in which Sidney Crosby had an absolutely dominant shift, protecting the puck behind the net, proving once again why he is the best in the world:
Phil Kessel has silently put up 8 points in 5 games, including his beautiful power play goal in game 1, which was a vintage Phil Kessel snipe over the glove of Bobrovsky. Kessel continues to produce, and is such a unique player in so many aspects.
What makes him truly unique is his ability to just turn it on in the playoffs. Kessel ended the regular season on a bit of a cold streak, not scoring many goals at all and not racking up the points he did earlier on in the season. Typically, if a player ends the regular season on a cold streak, it usually follows that player into the postseason.
Not with Phil.
Kessel has this magical “switch” that he turns on in the playoffs. It is indescribable. The guy plays a different game come playoff time, and it shows: he has 25 points in 27 games in the playoffs as a Penguin, and came in 2nd in Conn Smythe voting last year en route to his first Stanley Cup.
When the Penguins’ stars are on their game, I do not believe there is a team in this league that could beat them in a 7 game series. The success of these players simply propelled the Penguins past the Jackets, who just do not have the same type of star-powered talent.
Sid and the Kids
This line of Jake Guentzel, Sidney Crosby, and Conor Sheary has developed into this year’s HBK line. They were put together late in the season, they clicked, and they have been dynamic ever since.
They were relatively quiet in game 1, but since th n they have been the focal point of the Penguins’ success, including Jake Guentzel’s hat trick game winning goal in overtime of game 3.
Jake Guentzel and Conor Sheary are both brilliant hockey players, with or without Sid. Crosby is going to make whoever he plays with better, but these 2 have terrific hockey sense and are both going to continue to be dangerous players in this league. Both players have speed, especially Sheary, and both play a similar style to Crosby. They can protect the puck well, they’re fierce on the forecheck, and they have an undeniable chemistry. Guentzel has particularly stood out thus far in the playoffs. Sheary has not had his best series, but look for him to rebound as the playoffs go on.
If the Penguins are going to repeat as Stanley Cup champions, look for this line to remain their best line consistently throughout the playoff run. However, it should be noted that the Crosby line was on the ice for 8 of Columbus’ 12 goals. That will need to change.
No Letang? No problem…For The Most Part
After Letang missed an extended amount of time in the regular season, the team received the unfortunate news that he would need surgery on a herniated disk in his neck. Many had hopes that Letang would be ready for the playoffs, but unfortunately, the Penguins would have to do without him.
They’re doing just fine.
Jacques Martin, Penguins’ defensive coach, has done a tremendous job spreading out the minutes across the 6 defensemen. This is allowing for certain guys to not have to take on Letang’s abnormally large 25-30 minutes per night.
Although the defense has been okay, it is clear that they are missing Letang dearly. There have been a few cases of blind passes, bad turnovers, and failed clears so far in the playoffs by Pens’ defensemen. Luckily, it didn’t end up hurting them in the first round all that much, but it is something that needs to be addresses and fixed in the upcoming rounds.
All of that said, for this defense to shut down guys like Atkinson, Wennberg, Saad, Jones, Werenski and company for the most part without Kris Letang is a huge confidence booster, and gives hope that even without Letang, the Penguins have enough of what it takes to do it again.
Maybe just enough, but enough.
Bobrovsky’s Playoff Woes Continue
Sergei Bobrovsky will likely be the 2016-17 Vezina Trophy winner, awarded to the best NHL goalie throughout the regular season. He posted a 2.06 GAA and a .931 save percentage in the regular season, while also boasting a 41-17-5 record.
If the Blue Jackets were going to win this series, they were going to need Bobrovsky to play like he did in the regular season. Unfortunately for the Jackets, Bob has never been much of a playoff performer in his career, and this year was no different.
In his career, including this year, Bobrovsky is 3-10 with a 3.53 GAA and a .890 save percentage. This year alone, he was 1-3 with a 3.61 GAA and a .891 save percentage through game 4, and allowed another 5 goals in game 5, making 27 saves on 32 shots in another losing effort. Although Bob made some incredible and timely saves throughout the series, he was not playing near the level that he played in the regular season, which is where the Jackets needed him to be at for them to have a chance at dethroning the Penguins.
When You’re Hot, You’re Hot, And When You’re Not…
The Blue Jackets had a 16 game win streak early in the season. They were flying high, all cylinders go, and looked almost unbeatable. But there was one issue: they peaked at the wrong time.
This 16 game win streak ultimately lead to them finishing fourth overall in the NHL standings, but that 16 game win streak in the middle of the season doesn’t mean much come playoff time. What matters is how your team is playing to close out the season, and the Jackets were not good.
They were having a lot of trouble scoring goals late in the year, and lost 5 games in a row before finally winning their last game of the season against the Maple Leafs, who had just clinched a playoff spot the night before against basically the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins.
Often times in this league, if a team is cold going into the playoffs, it becomes so difficult to just flip on a switch and get hot right away. It just doesn’t happen.
Take a look at the Minnesota Wild. Dubnyk was having an incredible year, the Wild were scoring goals, and they were cruising…in the middle of the season. In 16 games in March, the Wild had only 4 wins, and Dubnyk went from being almost a lock for the Vezina to playing himself right out of the award. He might still be a finalist, but I would be shocked if he won it. How are the Wild doing now? They’re down 3 games to 1 to the Blues, after being down 3 to 0 in the series and winning game 4..
When you’re hot, you’re hot. And when you’re not? Well, it tends to stay that way.
Bryan Rust continues to come up large in big games, scoring the first goal in game 1, and 2 in the clinching game 5.
Sid and the Kids has been good, but let’s not leave out the Rust-Malkin-Kessel line. They have been absolutely spectacular thus far. And the bottom 6 will only get better with the return of Hagelin and Kunitz whenever they are able to return.
The Penguins will face the winner of the Washington vs. Toronto series in the next round, which is a shaking up to be a far more exciting matchup than many thought it would be.
- Game one featured some nerves as goalie Matt Murray was injured in warmups giving way to Marc-Andre Fleury. Behind Fleury’s stellar preformance and timely goals by Phil Kessel and Nick Bonino, the Penguins emerged victorious and took a 1-0 series lead.
- Game two was more of the same with Fleury domination by Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel, and Conor Sheary took over after being vastly unnoticed in game one. Matt Calvert‘s hit at the end on Tom Kuhnhackl got him suspended one game. The series was 2-0 Penguins heading to Columbus for an Easter matchup.
- Game three seemed out of the Penguins’ hands early as the Blue Jackets scored 11 seconds in and then twice more within 6:10 of the start of the game. The Penguins took over from there getting great play from all facets with about 10:00 left in the first period on and the Penguins emerged victorious pushing the Blue Jackets to the brink of elimination behind a hat trick from Guentzel.
- Game four was the Pens worst 60 minutes and they still scored four goals. The team as a whole lacked jump and Fleury didn’t have the best game. Columbus kept up the pressure to force the series to five and it will head to Pittsburgh.
- Game five was an offensive explosion yet again from the Penguins. Bryan Rust had two goals and Fleury made 49 saves en route to the series clinching victory as the Penguins await Toronto or Columbus in round two.