Last 10 Games
The Pens have gone 5-5 to wind down the season, faltering in their last two with losses to Philadelphia in a 4-3 overtime loss and then bowing 3-2 to the Senators in a shootout. However, Pittsburgh did take a narrow 2-1 road decision over Columbus as recently as March 28th after rebounding from a 3-2 loss to the Kings the night before.
Columbus reeled off six victories in 10 tries to end their season starting with the aforementioned loss to the Penguins at home but then tallied victories over weak sisters Florida, Carolina and the Islanders in addition to wins over Dallas, Phoenix and Philadelphia. Their four losses resulted from powerhouses Pittsburgh, Colorado, Chicago and to a slightly lesser degree Tampa Bay.
The Penguins flat out dominated the Blue Jackets and swept the season series by winning all five games. Pittsburgh won by scores of 4-2, 3-0, 2-1, 5-3 and then bested the Jackets by a score of 2-1 only less than three weeks ago. However, before you anoint the Penguins as slam dunk runaways to end this series early, it must be noted that Columbus has been a different team since the New Year began going 26-13-3. Meanwhile Pittsburgh has had their share of hiccups down the road and while they have owned the Blue Jackets this season, it's all shiny and new in the postseason.
Where's the Edge?
Naturally Pittsburgh's offense is the first thing people think of when they analyze the core fundamentals of this group and their key assets. Sidney Crosby rules no matter who is on the ice and if he's Mick Jagger then Evgeni Malkin has to be considered his Keith Richards. Unfortunately Keith is languishing on the pine as his foot recuperates and will be absent for at least the first several shows of the tour. In addition to Malkin, the Penguins have sustained their share of injuries this season but are happy to welcome back ace blueliner Kris Letang who is a huge presence both defensively and as part of their potent offense.
Defensively Pittsburgh is getting healthier as Letang makes his return as does Paul Martin. The Penguins are more solid defensively this season than they have been in the recent past, ranking 10th in goals against average and shots allowed on goal. However, the Blue Jackets will be attacking right from jump street and Ryan Johansen is slowly making his name heard around NHL circles. Johansen netted 33 goals and tallied 30 helpers to lead his team with 63 points on the season. Columbus boasts a very balanced scoring attack and are in the upper echelon of all the major statistical categories.
Obviously the Penguins will have the advantage offensively while Columbus is a more physical team that can be strong defensively. Therefore, the goaltending should play a crucial role. This is where the Jackets have it all over the Penguins in spades. Marc-Andre Fleury has to be the luckiest man alive that he still has a starting job after some disastrous playoff appearances. Fleury has recorded a decent regular season but the roof always caves in when the playoffs begin. Conversely the Blue Jackets have last year's Vezina Trophy winner between the pipes in Sergei Bobrovsky who has had another stellar season. Big edge here for Columbus.
Everyone is always looking for value in their NHL picks and for that reason I say that the Columbus Blue Jackets may stun the NHL with a hard hitting brand of hockey, coupled with a superb goaltending performance that will send Pittsburgh packing early yet again. This is a new, invigorated and confident Blue Jackets team that has caught fire since 2014 commenced and we look for them to move on to the next round as a decent sized underdog in NHL odds.
NHL Pick: Columbus +165 at Bet365.com as they win the series 4-2 over Pittsburgh.