When realignment brought the Columbus Blue Jackets to the Eastern Conference and Metropolitan Division this season, the potential for a strong geographic rivalry with the Pittsburgh Penguins was set. Now, with the two teams – located less than a three-hour drive from one another – about to face off in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, the rivalry is poised to grow legs.
After sweeping the regular-season series, 5-0, the No. 2 Penguins will have to guard against taking the No. 7 Blue Jackets lightly.
“They’re skilled, they’ve got great goaltending [in Sergei Bobrovsky, last year’s Vezina winner], they play fast,” said Penguins forward James Neal. “We had a good year against them, but they’re going to come hard. It’s the playoffs and everyone’s got a chance now.”
“They have four lines that work hard; they’re really tough to play against,” said rookie defenseman Olli Maatta – who, at age 19, would fit right in on the Blue Jackets’ roster, youngest in the NHL. “We’ve done a pretty good job against them, but they’ve never been easy games.”
If anything can keep the Penguins from being too confident based on regular-season success, last year’s playoff ending – a four-game sweep at the hands of the Boston Bruins, who they swept 3-0 in the regular-season series – should do it.
“We had a lot of success against Boston in the regular season last year, too, so I wouldn’t put a lot of value into the season series,” said defenseman Brooks Orpik. “I think [Bobrovsky] only played one half-game against us and we saw their backup the other four and a half, and both teams were decimated with injuries [throughout the season].
“It’s a team that competes really hard. They had to go on a pretty good streak there at the end to get in; they’re playing good hockey. I know [Columbus head coach] Todd Richards [from his time with the AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins] and he’s pretty demanding. He’s a good coach and he gets those guys playing hard every night.”
For the Penguins, who finished the season with a staggering 529 man-games lost to injuries and illnesses, players are returning to the lineup at the right time. Defenseman Kris Letang resumed playing just 10 weeks after suffering a stroke. Backup goaltender Tomas Vokoun, who missed the entire season with a blood-clot condition, was recalled after a brief conditioning stint in Wilkes-Barre. Forward Beau Bennett and defenseman Paul Martin, who missed large portions of the season with multiple injuries, are back and contributing.
Only star center Evgeni Malkin, who has resumed light skating after suffering a hairline fracture in his foot, remains questionable for this playoff round, while the Blue Jackets are dealing with injuries to several veterans, with former Bruin Nathan Horton the most significant loss in terms of his scoring, physicality and playoff experience.
“Hopefully, the worst of it is out of the way” for the Penguins, Orpik said. “I’ve never seen anything quite like that in one season, especially to significant guys. One guy would come back; another would go down. The guys we brought up from Wilkes-Barre did an awesome job for us all year, and a lot of the guys here who probably wouldn’t have had as big a role did a really good job stepping up and playing bigger roles. Hopefully, we’ll get everybody back here at some point.”
Perhaps no player’s wellbeing is more important to the Penguins than starting goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. After struggling so much in last year’s playoffs that he lost his job to Vokoun, Fleury’s work with a sports psychologist and new goaltending coach seemed to pay off this season. He finished No. 2 in the league with 39 wins, notched five shutouts, and his 2.37 goals-against average put him in the top 10 of goaltenders who started more than half of their team’s games.
Still, as Fleury well knows by now, none of that matters in terms of his big-game reputation, which has tarnished with each postseason since he helped lead the Penguins to their 2009 Stanley Cup.
“Not many people remember the season; everything [that] counts is in the playoffs,” Fleury said. “I think you learn during a long season; you find ways to win. I have a confidence level. I feel good; I’m looking forward to getting started.”
Fleury and his teammates had an up-and-down end to the season, struggling to a mostly even record since the Olympic break. With a comfortable lead in the Metropolitan Division for much of the year and the Bruins pulling away in the Atlantic to win the Eastern Conference, Pittsburgh’s No. 2 playoff position was all but assured for weeks. After sometimes struggling to find motivation for meaningless games, the players felt they used the last few of the year to make sure they were focused on playing the right way.
“As long as we play smart, simple, fast hockey, we’ll be able to get it done,” Bennett said. “I kind of hope [the games are low-scoring], because we don’t want to be running and gunning too much. When that happens, things can get away from us at times. Play the right way, defense-first, and we’ll get our chances.”
“I like the way we’re getting healthy; I like the way we’re playing,” Neal said. “This year is a little different than others. We’re playing the right hockey at the right time and it’s big for us.”
“Playing kind of meaningless games, it’s not easy to get motivated,” Maatta said. “I think we did a pretty good job of it, but you could probably see that there were games that really didn’t matter that much. It was all about getting ready for playoffs. Now it’s the real deal, and I feel really good about this team. We’re going to go for a long run.”