Pittsburgh Penguins (M2) vs. Columbus Blue Jackets (M3)
Season series: Each was 2-1-1
Last playoff meeting: 2014 Eastern Conference First Round; Penguins won series 4-2
All-time playoff series: Penguins lead 1-0
[RELATED: Penguins-Blue Jackets coverage | Gagner in Blue Jackets' X-factor | Why Penguins will win Cup]
How they got here
The Pittsburgh Penguins (50-21-11) finished three points ahead of the Columbus Blue Jackets (50-24-8) in the Metropolitan Division. Each had 86 points through 61 games. Pittsburgh went 12-6-3 in its last 21 games to make up the difference. Columbus was 11-8-2.
The best-of-7 Eastern Conference First Round series begins at PPG Paints Arena on Wednesday (7:30 p.m. ET; USA, SN 360, TVA Sports).
The Penguins won the Stanley Cup last season for the fourth time in their history. They are appearing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the 11th consecutive season, the longest streak in the NHL. This is the third playoff appearance for the Blue Jackets, first since 2014.
Video: Penguins vs Blue Jackets First Round Preview
Sidney Crosby vs. Brandon Dubinsky: If Penguins center Sidney Crosby is the superhero, Blue Jackets center Brandon Dubinsky is the villain. That's the way it's always been for Crosby and Dubinsky. The plot won't change now. They have fought each other. Dubinsky has been suspended for cross-checking Crosby in the head. In many ways, this matchup could define the series because the Blue Jackets will want to play physical and grind away at the Penguins, whereas Pittsburgh will want to negate that physicality with its speed. Columbus has speed too, but trying to go speed-for-speed against Pittsburgh isn't smart. Dubinsky will try to grind away at Crosby, who will try to be elusive and beat him in transition or with plays below the dots.
Friends turned adversaries: There's a good chance that nobody in the NHL knows Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan better than Columbus coach John Tortorella. The same is true the other way. Tortorella and Sullivan worked together for six seasons with the Tampa Bay Lightning, New York Rangers and Vancouver Canucks from 2007-14. Tortorella was the coach, and Sullivan was his assistant. It was the same dynamic at the World Cup of Hockey 2016 last fall, when Tortorella was coach for Team USA and had Sullivan on his staff. They remain close friends, except for this series. "There'll be no discussion," Sullivan said. Maybe not, but it will be interesting to see their dynamic play out in a playoff series. It might negate any coaching advantage, or it might lead to an enticing mental game of matching wits and trying to stay ahead of what they know for sure the other is thinking.
Filling Kris Letang's role: The Penguins have a big hole to fill with the loss of Letang, who will miss the playoffs and potentially the start of next season because of surgery to repair a herniated disc in his neck. It's impossible to replace Letang, who can play 30 minutes per game and get better with each passing minute. But the Penguins will try to cope without their top defenseman by using their depth. Sullivan said they have hard decisions to make, especially with the recent returns of Trevor Daley and Olli Maatta from injury. Pittsburgh went 13-7-3 without Letang after Feb. 25.
Sergei Bobrovsky vs. Matt Murray: Blue Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky is a favorite to win the Vezina Trophy and a potential Hart Trophy candidate. Penguins goalie Matt Murray should be a candidate for the Calder Trophy. He'd be the first goalie to win it after winning the Stanley Cup since Ken Dryden in 1971-72. Bobrovsky has appeared in 13 NHL playoff games and is 2-6 with a 3.50 goals-against average and .890 save percentage. Murray was 15-6 with a 2.08 GAA and .923 save percentage for the Penguins in the playoffs last season. On paper, it looks like the Blue Jackets have the edge in goal because they have the Vezina Trophy contender, but it's thin if it exists at all because of what Murray has already proven he's capable of doing.
Doctor, doctor: The good news for Pittsburgh is center Evgeni Malkin should be back for Game 1. Malkin (upper body) has been out since March 17, but Sullivan said Sunday he is encouraged with his progress. Maatta returned Sunday after missing 25 games following hand surgery. In addition, Daley played two of the final three games of the regular season after missing 20 games because of knee surgery. However, the statuses of left wings Carl Hagelin (lower body) and Chris Kunitz (lower body) are unclear. Neither is likely to play in Game 1. Columbus rookie defenseman Zach Werenski (upper body) missed the final four games of the regular season but is expected to be ready for Game 1. If Werenski were to miss any time, it would throw the Blue Jackets' defense pairs for a loop and prevent them from being able to match up against Crosby and Malkin the way they would like. The Blue Jackets also might not have defenseman Ryan Murray (hand), which means it's possible rookie Markus Nutivaara will play in his place. Scott Harrington is the other option.
Video: PIT@CGY: Malkin finishes off give-and-go for PPG
By the numbers
11.5: The Blue Jackets' percentage on the power play in their last 41 games of the season (10-for-87). They were last in the NHL on the power play from Jan. 14 to the end of the regular season. They were first on the power play in their first 41 games (25.8 percent, 32-for-124). They finished 12th (19.9 percent).
23.1: The Penguins' power-play percentage for the season, tied for third in the League. Crosby had 25 points (14 goals, 11 assists) on the power play, and Phil Kessel had 30 (eight goals, 22 assists).
37: Times Columbus led after the first period in the regular season. The Blue Jackets were 28-8-1 when leading after the first period. Quick starts against the Penguins will allow the Blue Jackets to be physical and control the pace.
Video: FLA@CBJ: Werenski nets beautiful sharp-angle goal
In the spotlight
Penguins: Brian Dumoulin, defenseman -- Dumoulin is one of the more physical of the Pittsburgh defensemen. Assuming the Blue Jackets try to be physical on the Penguins, Dumoulin has to be able to withstand it and turn it around by taking the body to take the puck. He won't have the safety net of Letang like he did in the playoffs last season, so it leaves him more exposed.
Video: CBJ@PIT: Dumoulin beats Bobrovsky with a wraparound
Blue Jackets: Jack Johnson, defenseman -- Johnson has to play physical, but he needs to use his skating and puck-moving ability to help Columbus in transition too. He can't get caught in between. If he's too far up the ice, Pittsburgh will get odd man rushes. If he's cautious, the Penguins will keep attacking him and trying to break him down.
Video: WSH@CBJ: Johnson scores as Gagner tallies 400th point
Keys to victory
Penguins: Nick Bonino's line. The Penguins will try to come at the Blue Jackets in waves by spreading out their scoring depth. Bonino's third line, just like last season, makes that happen. The Blue Jackets might not have enough depth on defense to keep up. It's possible Patric Hornqvist and Scott Wilson could be on Bonino's line for Game 1.
Video: PIT@NYR: Bonino sends home rebound to open scoring
Blue Jackets: Belief. The Blue Jackets have size, depth, talent, speed, skill and goaltending. They need to have some swagger against the defending champs. They need to believe they belong, that they're good enough, because there's no doubt the Penguins do.