Looking at the season series between Metropolitan Division rivals, the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Columbus Blue Jackets, there is little to suggest the teams are evenly matched.
They played each other five times and five times Pittsburgh emerged victorious, Trailing for 56 seconds in the 300 minutes of the series.
Riding a top-end power-play, the Penguins outscored the Blue Jackets, 16-7. Five of those goals came on the 19 power-play attempts Pittsburgh had in the series. By contrast, Columbus scored one power-play goal, on 14 attempts.
Plus, this matchup has been one-sided for quite some time. Since Sidney Crosby joined the League, he has lost to Columbus once in regulation, during his rookie season.
But the Blue Jackets are not ready to concede anything. As they look at the series, they see a couple of things in their favor.
First, Columbus managed more shots on goal in the five-game series, outshooting Pittsburgh 155-145. Also, No. 1 goalie Sergei Bobrovsky appeared in one game against the Penguins, missing the others because of injury or sickness.
Columbus knows Bobrovsky, the reigning Vezina Trophy winner, can be a difference-maker in this series, especially going head-to-head against Marc-Andre Fleury, who has found the playoffs to be a bit of the nightmare in each of the past few seasons.
In fact, all the pressure will be on Pittsburgh, the No. 2 seed, as they try to put to rest the first-round struggles which have plagued the organization for the past few years."I'm just excited for the opportunity to play in the playoffs," Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards told the Columbus Dispatch. "It's something you have to earn, and our players went out and earned it this season. Now we have an opportunity to play, to me, one of the premiere teams in the League, a team that has talented players who know how to win and they're well coached.
"We get to go into their building. We're 0-5 against them and that's probably going to be discussed. But a lot of those games were pretty good hockey games. If we get a goal here or there, maybe we're 2-3 or 1-4, or whatever."
Crosby should be the runaway winner of the Hart Trophy after running away with the Art Ross Trophy this season, topping 100 points for the fifth time in his career (104). Evgeni Malkin might be back in time for Game 1 after missing the last 11 games of the regular season with a foot injury. Malkin had 72 points in 60 games.
Beyond that dynamic duo of centers, the Penguins are loaded in their top six with Chris Kunitz, James Neal and Jussi Jokinen coming off big regular seasons. Since arriving at the NHL Trade Deadline from the Calgary Flames, Lee Stempniak has looked like a solid replacement on Crosby's line in place of injured Pascal Dupuis. Beau Bennett also can play in that spot.
There's obviously a big drop in production from Pittsburgh's top six to its bottom six, but that's to be expected and doesn't have to be considered a problem.
The Penguins have depth in the bottom six, particularly with Brandon Sutter, Marcel Goc, Craig Adams and Joe Vitale capable of playing center. Goc and Vitale were part of the Penguins' walking wounded in the past few weeks. Bennett was in the top six at the end of the regular season because of Malkin's injury, but if coach Dan Bylsma moves him down the lineup it could be a boost.
The Blue Jackets established a franchise record for goals in a season with 226. Seven players scored at least 16 goals and the team appears ready to continue that trend in their second appearance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
In the other playoff appearance, in 2008-09, the Blue Jackets had three players with 15 or more goals. They would score seven playoff goals that year in a four-game Western Conference Quarterfinal loss to the Detroit Red Wings, an indicator the team lacked depth at forward.
That doesn’t seem to be an issue this season.
Among the top offensive threats for the Blue Jackets are their top three centers, Brandon Dubinsky (16 goals, 50 points), Ryan Johansen (33 goals, 63 points) and Artem Anisimov (22 goals, 39 points), and wings Nick Foligno, Cam Atkinson, Boone Jenner and RJ Umberger.
Umberger and Foligno missed the final week of the regular season because of injury and neither may be ready for Game 1.
The news also is not good for Nathan Horton, who was signed to a seven-year contract this summer to be the go-to goal scorer. He is ruled out for six weeks after undergoing surgery in the last week of the season.
His playoff experience, 15 goals and 36 points in 43 games spanning two seasons with the Boston Bruins, will be absent.
Dubinsky had one of his best seasons, 21-year-old Johansen experienced a meteoric rise in scoring with career-high totals across the board, and 20-year-old rookie Jenner not only chipped in with 29 points but delivered 212 hits, the third-highest total on the team.
Kris Letang returned to the Penguins lineup last week after missing 26 games following a stroke. Letang gives the blue line an explosive element it didn't have when he was out of the lineup. Without Letang, Pittsburgh had to be more of a nuts-and-bolts defense. His injury meant Matt Niskanen had to take on a bigger role, and he had his best season since entering the NHL in 2007-08.
Paul Martin returned to the lineup April 3 after missing 18 games with a broken hand sustained playing for the United States at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Like Letang, Martin was able to get some games in before the playoffs, so timing shouldn't be an issue.
With the two best offensive defensemen back, Bylsma can mix and match them with defensive-zone stalwarts Rob Scuderi and Brooks Orpik. The only pairing that has remained constant, for the most part, has been Niskanen and rookie Olli Maatta, who is having a Calder Trophy-caliber season.
Maatta battled inconsistent play and some natural fatigue since returning from the Olympics, where he played well for Finland; he's an elite skater with excellent hockey sense and great poise.
Scuderi is a two-time Stanley Cup winner (Pittsburgh in 2009, Los Angeles Kings in 2012). He's as reliable as they come and will put in a workmanlike 19 minutes of ice time each game.
Bylsma also has Robert Bortuzzo, Deryk Engelland and Simon Despres available. Bortuzzo and Engelland are more stay-at-home players, though Engelland did play some forward this season, and Despres is more of a puck-mover.
Jack Johnson wasn't included on the roster for the United States at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, but instead of souring over the fact, he focused on matters he could control to become a vital force for the Blue Jackets in their second-half surge.
It was a surprise to some that Johnson wasn't on the roster as the U.S. managerial team opted for young defensemen Cam Fowler, Kevin Shattenkirk, Justin Faulk and John Carlson. Johnson wound up with 33 points, 128 blocked shots and 182 hits for the Blue Jackets. As good as James Wisniewski has been on the back end in his third season in Columbus, you get the feeling Johnson is the engine who gives the Blue Jackets defensemen that freedom to go full speed ahead.
The Blue Jackets recorded a franchise record for hits in a season and Johnson led the defensemen. In addition to taking a tenacious approach, defenders chipped in offensively; Wisniewski, Johnson, Fedor Tyutin and rookie Ryan Murray all topped 20 points. Wisniewski set the Blue Jackets record for points in a season by a defenseman with 51, second on the team behind Johansen’s 63. Twenty-eight of Wisniewski's points came on the power play, the third-highest total among the League’s defensemen.
Tyutin, in his sixth season with Columbus, ranks among the top six in team history in points. Murray, who had arthroscopic knee surgery March 7 and was thought to miss 4-6 weeks, returned to the lineup sooner than expected and Richards never hesitated to reinsert his standout rookie in the lineup.
Dalton Prout and Nikita Nikitin are examples of depth along the blue line, prone to sacrificing their body in front of Bobrovsky.
All eyes are on Fleury, who has so many questions to answer. His successful regular season doesn't mean anything right now.
Can he handle the pressure? How will he react when he gives up a goal? Will he be haunted by his dubious playoff past?
Fleury won the Stanley Cup with the Penguins in 2009 after helping them get to Game 6 of Stanley Cup Final in 2008, but since then he has struggled in the postseason.
He has 14 wins, a 3.18 goals-against average and .880 save percentage in 31 playoff appearances since 2010. His past two postseasons were particularly uninspiring; he had an .857 save percentage and 4.11 GAA in 11 appearances.
Fleury’s confidence and mental toughness will be as important to the Penguins as Crosby's production. Fleury had a strong regular season with a .915 save percentage, so he should enter the playoffs feeling good about his game. Yet he knows better than anyone he'll be judged by how he performs this spring.
Jeff Zatkoff is Fleury's backup; he has no playoff experience. If Bylsma has to turn to Zatkoff in the playoffs, it'll mean things are bleak in Pittsburgh.
Bobrovsky didn’t need to prove last season's Vezina Trophy-winning campaign was a fluke, but he went out and did it anyway.
Bobrovsky, acquired in a trade with the Philadelphia Flyers in June 2012, has maintained a cerebral yet confident approach to his game that has benefitted his teammates. He continues to be great when Columbus needs him to be, finishing with five shutouts and a .923 save percentage.
Bobrovsky represented Russia at the 2014 Sochi Olympics and finished 1-0-1 with a 1.15 goals-against average and .952 save percentage.
The 25-year-old did face some adversity early in the season when he began 9-11-2. He'd also have a minor setback while overcoming an illness, but he got hot at the right time and is expected to continue his strong play between the pipes for Columbus in the postseason.
He'll need to prove himself early. In seven playoff games with the Flyers, Bobrovsky managed a 4.04 goals-against average and .848 save percentage. He'll be backed up by Curtis McElhinney.
This is almost a prove-it postseason for Bylsma even though he has proved so much since becoming Pittsburgh's coach in 2009.
Bylsma led Pittsburgh to a Stanley Cup championship four months after he replaced Michel Therrien. Bylsma got the Penguins back to the Eastern Conference Final last season, but that ended with such disappointment when the Boston Bruins dispatched them in four games, holding the Penguins to two goals.
The Penguins, despite a injury list of epic porportions, ran away with the Metropolitan Division this season, basically making the race for first a moot point by December. However, like Fleury, Crosby and everybody in Pittsburgh, Bylsma will be measured by his playoff successes and failures.
Last season's run, even though it ended in the conference final, a round 26 teams couldn't get to, was deemed a disappointment. Failure to get back, or go further, would also be a disappointment.
The Blue Jackets were able to qualify for the postseason for only the second time in franchise history due in large part to the calm and cool Richards. One thing that goes unnoticed in Columbus is the fact the sixth coach in franchise history never did name a captain following the trade of Rick Nash in July 2012. Instead, he prefers to lean on a roster full of leaders. Johnson, Dubinsky and Mark Letestu are alternate captains.
Under Richards, the Blue Jackets have understood the importance of executing short, smart plays along the boards. He's stressed puck support and provided his skaters with several options and looks, via quick passes in each zone.
The word "special" works here, because it's hard to find a better combination of power play and penalty kill than Pittsburgh's anywhere else in the League.
The power play ran neck-and-neck with the Washington Capitals as the best in the NHL. Pittsburgh has a plethora of weapons on the power play with Crosby, Malkin, Neal, Kunitz, Letang, Niskanen, Martin, Maatta, Stempniak, Bennett and Sutter all seeing time. It's a wealth of riches that could be the difference on many nights this postseason.
Pittsburgh's penalty kill also was among the best in the League. Craig Adams, Sutter, Orpik, Martin and Scuderi are relentless on the puck and excellent at keeping the opposition away from the net. It's impressive the Penguins killed penalties at such a high level all season considering Orpik, Martin and Scuderi missed long periods of time because of injury. Letang will be a part of the PK unit.
The Blue Jackets had an improved power play this season and that's an area which must continue to thrive if the team is to have any success in the postseason. After finishing 28th with the man-advantage in 2012-13, Columbus ranked 11th this season, clicking at 19.3 percent.
The biggest difference was faster execution and winning 1-on-1 battles for pucks. The club was able to consistently put quality attempts on net, another big part of the turnaround.
That wasn't always the case though; they experienced an 0-for-36 drought in March but has since picked it up in April to instill some confidence entering the playoffs.
The penalty kill, usually a strength, was middle of the pack this season, killing 82.1 percent of the opportunities Defenseman Johnson, Tyutin, and Wisniewski, and forwards Letestu, Anisimov, MacKenzie and Dubinsky play big roles on the kill and will have to be at their best against a great power play.
Marc-Andre Fleury -- It seems like a cop-out to pick the goalie because a team's success or failure in a series typically hinges on how well its goalie plays. However, with the Penguins, the story is different based on Fleury's play in the two previous postseasons. The Penguins reached the Eastern Conference Final last season because Tomas Vokoun stepped in to stabilize the goaltending. A big reason they lost a wild first-round series to the Philadelphia Flyers in 2012 was because Fleury couldn't stop the puck. His success hinges as much on his physical attributes as his mental state. If Fleury is confident and believes in himself, he'll play well. If he doesn't, Pittsburgh could be out in a flash.
Ryan Johansen -- When the Blue Jackets needed an offensive spark, scintillating move or an energetic lift in the offensive zone, 6-foot-3, 223-pound Johansen is usually the one bringing fans to their feet. He displays exceptional quickness and one of the finest wrist shots in the NHL, and led the Blue Jackets in goals, points, shots on goal, overtime winners and faceoff wins. Now it's time for Johansen to play that same big role in his first appearance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. In 34 playoff games with the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League, Johansen had 19 goals and 46 points.
Penguins will win if … Fleury plays well, the special teams are special, they avoid key injuries, and they get some depth scoring. Fleury is the key, as noted multiple times here. Pittsburgh's special teams were dominant in the regular season; that success has to carry over. The Penguins led the NHL in man-games lost to injury during the regular season; a healthy run would be helpful. Crosby and Malkin will be challenged to carry the load with Kunitz, Neal and Jokinen running right behind them; the pressure would lighten if Sutter, Bennett and others contribute in key situations.
Blue Jackets will win if … They receive extraordinary goaltending from Bobrovsky and play their patient, no-frills game. They need to have at least one star come up big each night; if that star is "Bob," so be it. They also need to take a collective offensive approach, as they did in the regular season, by having more than one or two players contributing on the score sheet. Richards has preached an effective forecheck, being physical and creating turnovers, three areas that have become vital to their success.