If I asked you before the season started to name the most nondescript franchise in the NHL, the Columbus Blue Jackets would almost assuredly be one of your first three guesses. Or maybe not, if you completely forgot they even were a franchise. After all, in the 15 seasons prior to this one, the Blue Jackets only made the playoffs twice in their existence — once in 2009 when they got swept by the Red Wings and then in 2014 when they lost in 6 games to the Penguins. They’ve never had a dynamic player, with Rick Nash being their only superstar of sorts in their history and he’s been gone for five years now.
But this season has produced the finest Blue Jackets team in their now 16-season history. They finished with a franchise-record 50 wins (the previous high was 43 in that 2013-14 season) and a franchise-record 108 points, eclipsing the 93 points from their previous high water mark season of 2013-14. And once again, they’ll be squaring off in the first round against the Pittsburgh Penguins. This time, however, they are a much more legitimate threat to defeat the Pens in this series than that previous edition.
When you do a cursory look through their lineup, it’s not very intimidating. Their head coach, the despicable and repugnant John Tortorella, has them functioning like a finely tuned Swiss watch, so he’s definitely extracting the full talent value out of them. It’s easy to say that their true MVP is their goalie, Sergei Bobrovsky. Bobrovsky won the Vezina with Columbus back in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season when his stats were with a record of 21-11-6, 2.00 GAA, and a .934 save percentage. His stats this season are right on par with that, as he finished with a 41-17-5 record, 2.06 GAA, and a .931% save percentage. The stat Goals Saved Above Average, based on shots faced and save percentage related to league average marks, had him saving 33.45 more goals than an average goalie. Unless voters ride the ‘Braden Holtby carried the Caps to the President’s Trophy’ narrative, Bobrovsky should walk away with his 2nd Vezina.
The Blue Jackets’ lineup is fairly thin and this is what the Penguins can actively exploit by running out four strong, healthy lines. Columbus has one very good defensive pairings in David Savard-Jack Johnson, but the loss of phenomenal rookie Zach Werenski to a shoulder injury is clouding their top pairing with Seth Jones. Their third pairing of trade deadline pickup Kyle Quincey and Scott Harrington (yes, the ex-Pens d-man prospect) or Markus Nutivaara is rather poor in terms of possession stats and experience, in Harrington’s case. Defenseman Ryan Murray broke his hand on March 12th and was said to be out for 4-6 weeks, but he mysteriously came off Injured Reserve on March 23rd, but has yet to play. If he or Werenski are able to suit up at some point in this series, that will at least push Harrington out of the starting mix and lengthen their d-pairings a bit. It’s possible that Tortorella essentially goes with just his top four defensemen and sparingly gives time to whoever his 3rd pairing is, but that will eventually catch up to those guys.
The loss of Kris Letang does affect the Penguins’ defensive depth, of course, as their own 3rd pairing may potentially be shaky, but I just don’t think that the Blue Jackets have the offensive skill and depth to truly exploit it in the same fashion that the Penguins may do to them.
If last Tuesday’s game against them is any indication, the forward lines may look like:
- 1st: Nick Foligno – Brandon Dubinsky – Cam Atkinson
- 2nd: Brandon Saad – Alexander Wennberg – Oliver Bjorkstrand
- 3rd: Matt Calvert – Boone Jenner – Josh Anderson
- 4th: Scott Hartnell – William Karlsson – Sam Gagner
Those top two lines are very solid and respectable. There’s enough scoring punch to make you respect them and plenty of capability to mix it up with physical play, too, especially from known Sidney Crosby irritant, Brandon Dubinsky. The fourth line has Scott Hartnell, who is a known entity to Penguins fans at this point, and Sam Gagner, who is a good piece to have on your fourth line (18 G, 31 A).
For me, that 3rd line is exploitable, if it holds for the playoffs. First off, it’s extremely young with Jenner (23) and Anderson (22). Jenner and Calvert has seen the playoffs, but for both it was just those 6 games back in 2013-14 with the Blue Jackets. Calvert, Jenner and Anderson also have poor possession stats by Corsi, with Calvert (45.3%), Jenner (47.9%) and Anderson (46.7%) all solidly sub-par. If this line is intact, though, they need to be exploited by Mike Sullivan and the use of last-change on home ice. Not only would a 3rd line of Bonino, Kessel, and a TBD winger be a mismatch, but a double shift against the high-flying Guentzel-Crosby-Sheary line would be a nightmare for the Blue Jackets.
Although home-ice advantage doesn’t mean as much in the NHL as in other sports, with the Penguins especially indifferent to winning/losing at home or the road, it’s always nice to have in one’s backpocket. I’ll predict the Penguins in 6, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Bobrovsky wills this to a 7-game series where the series will be decided at PPG Paints Arena — with the Penguins still winning, of course. There is the distinct possibility that Bobrovsky throws up a Jaroslav Halak-esque stone wall and steals this series for the Blue Jackets. The Penguins made him mortal back in 2014, when he had a save percentage of just .908 and a gaudy 3.17 GAA, but there’s no guarantee of that this time.