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Round 1 Series Storylines: Penguins vs. Blue Jackets

by Michelle Crechiolo @PensInsideScoop / Penguins Team Reporter

A lot has changed since the Penguins and the Blue Jackets last met in the playoffs back in 2014.

That year, after the Pens defeated the Blue Jackets in six games during the First Round, they were eliminated in the Second Round by the New York Rangers - and major organizational changes followed over the next couple of seasons. The Pens have a different general manager, are on their second head coach and have made numerous trades to revamp their roster. Only a handful of players who participated in that series remain on said roster.

Those changes resulted in the Pens winning their fourth Stanley Cup in franchise history last season, while Columbus is still looking for their first playoff series win. While they have yet to find postseason success, they are coming off one heck of a regular season. They finished the year with a franchise-record 108 points after reaching 50 wins for the first time. And though they did finish the year on a 1-5-1 skid, earlier in the season they had a 16-game win streak, which is the second-longest in NHL history.

Here are the main storylines to follow as the series progresses…

 

RED-HOT RIVALRY

When the teams first met in 2014 playoffs, their rivalry was just being established. Now, it's developed into a terrific one between two teams that are located less than three hours apart. It may not be the Battle of Pennsylvania, but it's still an absolute battle every time they meet, and there is no love lost between them.

It isn't difficult to dislike the Blue Jackets, as they play a heavy, aggressive game. And when they're at their best, forward Cam Atkinson said, they play with a "little bit of arrogance." Not only do they love delivering checks - they also use other tactics to try and get opponents off their game. Guys like Brandon Dubinsky and Scott Hartnell spearhead them in that regard. And of course, the Blue Jackets aren't big fans of the Pens. Who could forget John Tortorella calling the Pens the most arrogant organization in the league when he was head coach of the New York Rangers?

The teams have completely different identities, as the Pens prefer to play a fast game - both when it comes to their skating and how they play. But while they're not an overly physical team, in the most recent regular-season matchup with Columbus on April 4 the Pens did a good job of dealing with that style of play from their opponent. They didn't back down, but they also didn't hurt themselves by getting involved in after-whistle scrums. It will be key for them to continue finding that balance, though it may prove to be a challenge.

The most important thing will be, as head coach Mike Sullivan always says, to "just play." They have to understand who they are and how they have to play regardless of who their opponent is and the methods they use to try and play against them.

 

ADJUSTING WITHOUT LETANG

With three games left in the regular season, the Pens learned they would be without star defenseman Kris Letang for the postseason. The team announced that he would undergo surgery for a herniated disc in his neck and have a recovery period of 4-6 months (get the full details on his injury here).

Losing Letang is an absolutely huge blow. As Jim Rutherford has said numerous times, Letang is the Pens' most important player. Replacing him is going to be incredibly difficult. Just look at the minutes Letang logged in last year's postseason - he averaged 28:52 of ice time per game, topping 30 seven times. Spreading those minutes out won't be easy. Guys are going to have to continue handling more ice time - in all situations - than they're used to. And then, of course, Letang is just such a skilled player who drives play for the Pens with how he can skate and move the puck up ice.

To be fair, Letang missed a lot of games this season and the Pens did a good job of playing without him - going 13-7-3 in his most recent absence and 25-11-5 overall in the 41 games he was out. As Sullivan said, "He's a tough guy to replace, but this team has done it all year long and that's what we're going to have to continue to do." But it's not going to be easy, especially come playoff time. The games get so much more intense and competitive, and the guys on the blue line are going to have a tall task ahead of them. Especially against a team like the Blue Jackets with their aggressive forecheck and smothering play on the boards.

On the other side, for a while there it seemed like Columbus could be without their star defenseman as well. Dynamic rookie Zach Werenski was injured on April 2 on a hit from Alex Ovechkin and missed the rest of the regular season. It was the first time Columbus had been without Werenski all season, and it showed as they struggled to adjust. Fortunately, it looks like they will be getting him back for the playoffs as both Tortorella and Blue Jackets general manager expressed optimism that Werenski would be ready.

 

OTHER INJURIES

It hasn't been all bad news in terms of injuries for the Pens, especially on the blue line. Trevor Daley returned to the lineup on April 6 against New Jersey following a 20-game absence, and the puck-moving defenseman is going to be critical for the Pens with Letang out. Meanwhile, Olli Maatta missed 25 straight games after hand surgery, but returned in the regular-season finale on April 9 against the NY Rangers.

Rutherford bolstered the Pens' depth on defense at the trade deadline, which means the Pens still have nine players to choose from back there even with Letang not available. Sullivan said there will be tough decisions ahead on which group of six they'll dress for playoffs. "We have some ideas, but the reality is we'll need all of them," he said.

On the front end, there has been a lot of progress as well. After skating on his own for some time, Evgeni Malkin joined team practice on April 6 and is close to a return after missing the last 13 games with an upper-body injury. Carl Hagelin, who missed the last 16 games with a lower-body injury, began skating on his own April 7. While those two will likely return soon, veteran winger Chris Kunitz will not as it was announced on April 2 he was out longer-term with a lower-body injury.

 

BOBROVSKY/MURRAY-FLEURY

When the Pens and Blue Jackets met in the playoffs three years ago, Sergei Bobrovsky was the defending Vezina Trophy winner as the league's best goalie. If that was a peak, he experienced several valleys in the following seasons, mostly due to injury. It all came to a head last year, when he missed 35 games with various injuries (including a recurring groin issue), struggled when he was in the net and had his overall worst season as a starter.

Now, it appears Bobrovsky has put his injury issues behind him - and he's back to playing at that Vezina Trophy level now that he's fully healthy. He looks set to capture the award again, as Bobrovsky led the NHL in save percentage (.931) and goals-against average (2.23) while finishing third with 41 wins.

Bobrovsky's play only got better at the season went on, which is saying a lot considering he was in net for most of the team's franchise-record 16-game win streak. He went 9-1-1 in March, being named the NHL's 2nd Star of the month, and carried the team as they struggled offensively down the stretch. "You see it all the time that the teams that win and teams that go far in the playoffs get unbelievable goaltending," Brandon Dubinsky told the Jackets' team website. "He's our most important player. He's going to be leaned on a lot, and if he can stand tall the way he has so far I really like our chances to make a good run."

While neither Pens goalie has won a Vezina like Bobrovsky, they each have a Stanley Cup after backstopping their teams to championships - and that's the trophy that matters. Matt Murray will likely start in goal after building some momentum to end the year with a few solid performances. What stands out about his play is that he's regained that calm demeanor and is letting the game come to him, which is when he's at his best. If Murray does falter at all, the Pens have the luxury of going to Fleury.

 

FRIENDS TURNED FOES

John Tortorella and Mike Sullivan go way back. Sullivan spent seven consecutive years as an assistant coach under Tortorellla from 2007-13, including two years with Tampa Bay, four with the New York Rangers and one with Vancouver. Sullivan said his motivation for joining Tortorella was to work beside someone that had success, experience and knew how to win. He wanted to learn how Tortorella went about his business from a preparation standpoint.

And while Sullivan said he was incredibly grateful for everything he learned under Tortorella, once they got fired by the Canucks he did a lot of soul searching and realized he was ready to be a head coach again. Sullivan took over first in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and then Pittsburgh, where he came in, took control and transformed a group of great players into a great team by building relationships and demanding accountability. It started with establishing an identity of being a fast team that's difficult to play against, and never wavering from that identity.

Now, both men are Cup-winning coaches - Sullivan in 2016, Tortorella in 2004 with the Lightning - who have passionate, intense yet fair demeanors and who expect a lot from their teams. And this marks the first time they'll be coaching against each other in an NHL playoff series. They know each other so well, it will be interesting to see how they approach and adjust throughout the course of the series. And while they'll do their best to deflect attention away from themselves this series - in fact, they've already started trying - make no mistake: though they remain best friends, these coaches want to beat each other.

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