The Penguins have a clear edge on the Columbus Blue Jackets in terms of experience heading into their first round Stanley Cup playoff showdown.
Pittsburgh’s roster features a combined 1,154-playoff games played and 11 Stanley Cup champions. The Blue Jackets lineup has a combined 251-career postseason games and only one Stanley Cup champion – and the bulk of that experience, and the Cup win, is from injured forward Nathan Horton.
So the young, inexperienced Blue Jackets were expected by many to be overwhelmed when the puck dropped for Game 1 Wednesday night at CONSOL Energy Center.
Someone must have forgotten to tell that to the Columbus players.
The Penguins used a couple of power-play goals and a dominant third period to win Game 1, 4-3 for a 1-0 series lead. But the Blue Jackets showed that they are here to play and that this will be a very competitive series.
The Penguins took control of this game in the third period. Pittsburgh’s forecheck and puck possession caused a lot of missed assignments from the Jackets. The zone time was heavily tilted in the Penguins’ favor, and eventually Pittsburgh broke through with a Brandon Sutter goal to break the 3-3 tie.
“We got better as the game went along,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “We seemed a little hesitant, a little shaky the first 30 minutes of the game. Made a few mistakes and were down in the game. Then we had a great response.”
If Game 1 was any indication of things to come, here is what to expect from the rest of this series...
*The Blue Jackets played a tight, rotating box in the defensive zone. They forced the Penguins to carry the puck on the perimeter and used one player to apply pressure on the puck carrier while the other four shifted to cut off passing lanes into the “house” area.
The Penguins will have to remain patient against this structure. The best way to break it is to cycle and wait for a blown assignment to create an opening, or to make the perfect pass play through the box – which Evgeni Malkin did to Jussi Jokinen for the Penguins’ first goal of the game.
*Brandon Dubinsky is going to make Sidney Crosby’s life miserable. Every time the Penguins captain jumped over the boards Dubinsky was sure to follow. And from the opening faceoff against each other – in which Dubinsky gave Crosby a shot to the groin with his stick – the Jackets forward took every opportunity to punish Crosby.
“They worked pretty hard to get (Dubinsky) on and off the ice for that matchup,” Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma said. “He played with two different lines to get that matchup.”
Dubinsky and Crosby will be seeing a lot of each other over the course of this series. Dubinsky’s assignment is to shut down the NHL’s scoring champion, and part of that strategy is using some post-whistle encounters to throw Crosby off his game.
Bylsma said the Penguins aren’t trying to avoid the Crosby-Dubinsky matchup. Instead, the coaching staff is paying more attention to which defensive pairs the Blue Jackets are utilizing.
“We were looking more at who the defense pairs were on the ice against (Crosby) and (Malkin),” Bylsma said.
Crosby will have to keep his cool, avoid the post-whistle shenanigans and concentrate only on making plays if he wants to be effective. Crosby was able to do that in Game 1, skating away from a few altercations. As long as he keeps his cool, Crosby will get the better end of that matchup.
*Columbus is going to play aggressive and physical, whether it’s in the offensive or defensive zone. They outhit the Penguins, 48-27, and were relentless on the forecheck. Their in-your-face play caused the Penguins to struggle with their breakouts, as well as forcing turnovers throughout the first half of the game.
In the third period, the Penguins better executed their breakouts and as a result were able to take advantage of Columbus’ aggressive play. The result was a dominant third period that had the Blue Jackets stuck in their own zone – and the eventual game-winning goal.
“They came hard, forechecked hard and were physical,” Niskanen said. “Their D were pinching and you knew at one point we were going to catch them. Sure enough Sutter gets that big goal in the third on a 2-on-1 break. It was a good finish by him.”
Sutter may have finished Columbus in Game 1, but that is only the beginning.