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5 Keys: Blue Jackets at Penguins, Game 1

Evgeni Malkin's return could boost Pittsburgh; defenseman Zach Werenski will play for Columbus

by Wes Crosby / NHL.com Correspondent

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets will meet in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference First Round series at PPG Paints Arena on Wednesday (7:30 p.m. ET; USA, SN360, TVA Sports 3, ROOT, FS-O, NHL.TV).

The Penguins, who are looking to repeat as Stanley Cup champions, will attempt to defeat the Blue Jackets in the first round for the second time in four seasons. Columbus hopes to win a Stanley Cup Playoff series for the first time since entering the NHL in 2000 and could take a step toward that goal with a Game 1 victory on the road.

Here are 5 keys for Game 1:

 

1. Malkin's condition

The Penguins could receive a boost with forward Evgeni Malkin returning after missing 13 games with an upper-body injury. However, with Malkin having sat out for nearly a month, even he is uncertain how comfortable he'll feel in his first game back.

After practice Tuesday, Malkin expressed confidence in his shot but questioned his legs. It will have to be seen how they hold up as Game 1 progresses.

Video: PIT@CGY: Malkin finishes off give-and-go for PPG

Despite missing 20 games, Malkin was second on the Penguins with 72 points (33 goals, 39 assists). However, it might be difficult for Malkin to pick up at his regular-season pace of 1.16 points per game without playing a few games.

 

2. Werenski's return

Rookie defenseman Zach Werenski will return after missing the Blue Jackets' past four games with an upper-body injury. The 19-year-old set Columbus rookie records for most assists (36) and points (47) in a season.

Before his injury, Werenski hadn't scored in his previous six games, but having him back with his regular partner, Seth Jones, should be an obvious plus for Columbus against the NHL's highest-scoring offense during the regular season.

"He's been a huge part of our team, a huge part of our D-corps all year," Jones said. "He's scored big goals when we needed them. … He's been awesome."

 

3. Pittsburgh's speed

The Penguins have been defined by speed since coach Mike Sullivan was hired on Dec. 12, 2015. A fast-paced game is what Pittsburgh is most comfortable playing, and that doesn't figure to change in the playoffs.

Video: PIT@NYR: Rowney steals puck, scores on breakaway

"You're just trying to make sure you're playing the right way going into the playoffs," center Sidney Crosby said. "You want to feel good about your game when you're in the playoffs."

Rookie forward Jake Guentzel added additional firepower, particularly while playing left wing alongside Crosby and right wing Conor Sheary. He has one goal in each of his past five games.

 

4. Blue Jackets' physicality

The Blue Jackets will likely attempt to slow the Penguins with their forecheck, specifically against Crosby. Columbus has attempted to match center Brandon Dubinsky on the Pittsburgh captain in the past. But with the Penguins at home in Game 1, Sullivan can use the last line change to keep the two apart.

Regardless of whether the Blue Jackets can match Dubinsky against Crosby, they intend to play to their identity.

"Hard hitting is a big part of hockey," coach John Tortorella said. "We're going to hit. It's a big part of who we are."

 

5. Murray vs. Bobrovsky

Sullivan confirmed rookie goalie Matt Murray will start Game 1, but did not disclose if he would turn to Marc-Andre Fleury at any point in the series. Murray, who was 15-6 in the playoffs last spring, has been Pittsburgh's No. 1 goalie since returning from a broken hand Nov. 2.

Video: CBJ@PIT: Bobrovsky gets across for a great glove save

"He's so mature for his age," defenseman Ian Cole said. "He's a consummate professional. … We're very fortunate to have him."

Sergei Bobrovsky, who led the NHL with a .931 save percentage, is the unquestioned starter for the Blue Jackets.

 

Blue Jackets projected lineup

Brandon Saad -- Alexander Wennberg -- Nick Foligno

Boone Jenner -- Brandon Dubinsky -- Cam Atkinson

Scott Hartnell -- Sam Gagner -- Oliver Bjorkstrand

Matt Calvert -- William Karlsson - Josh Anderson

Zach Werenski -- Seth Jones

Jack Johnson -- David Savard

Markus Nutivaara -- Gabriel Carlsson

Sergei Bobrovsky

Joonas Korpisalo

Scratched: Lauri Korpikoski, Kyle Quincey, Scott Harrington, Oscar Dansk

Injured: David Clarkson (back), Ryan Murray (hand), Lukas Sedlak (upper body)

 

Penguins projected lineup

Jake Guentzel -- Sidney Crosby -- Conor Sheary

Bryan Rust -- Evgeni Malkin -- Phil Kessel

Scott Wilson -- Nick Bonino -- Patric Hornqvist

Tom Kuhnhackl -- Matt Cullen -- Carter Rowney

Brian Dumoulin -- Ron Hainsey

Ian Cole -- Justin Schultz

Olli Maatta -- Trevor Daley

Matt Murray

Marc-Andre Fleury

Scratched: Cameron Gaunce, Josh Archibald, Mark Streit, Tristan Jarry

Injured: Kris Letang (upper body), Carl Hagelin (lower body), Tom Sestito (upper body), Chris Kunitz (lower body), Chad Ruhwedel (upper body)

 

Status report

Tortorella said the absence of Sedlak, who had 13 points (seven goals, six assists) in 62 games, could be a sizable loss. "That's a big blow to us," Tortorella said, "because he just solidified our four-line rotation." … Hagelin (lower body) has skated on his own in the past few days. He won't play in Game 1, but Sullivan said Tuesday there's a chance he could play during the series.

 

Who's hot

Jenner had four points (two goals, two assists) in his last three regular-season games after failing to score in his previous six games. … Crosby had seven points (two goals, five assists) in his final five regular-season games. He led the NHL in goals (44) and was tops on the Penguins in points (89).

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