Since the Pens matched up against Ottawa in the first round of the 2007 postseason, they’ve competed in 16 best-of-seven series. Pittsburgh has won 10 of those, including the 2009 Stanley Cup Final.
That championship capped back-to-back trips to the final round, but the Penguins haven’t returned to that stage in the past four springs. But although they’ve lost in the first round twice over that time span, they’ve also made it to the second and third rounds once each.
In short, even though it could be argued the franchise has been underwhelming in the playoffs since the new decade began, they’ve still had their share of success. Unfortunately, the manner in which the Pens have been eliminated over the past four years has left a bitter aftertaste each time.
Now, this year’s group gets its opportunity to right those wrongs, starting with an opening-round battle against the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Pens have seen their reputation downgraded a bit this season, what with the late-season malaise they’ve trudged through.
But much of their stagnation post-Olympics can be attributed to the absence of Kris Letang, Paul Martin and Malkin for various timeframes. In fact, since the trade deadline, the Penguins have seen their puck-possession numbers stabilize and begin to trend upward, as this graph from ExtraSkater.com indicates:
The line graph you see illustrates the Penguins’ Fenwick Close rating, which measures the percentage of non-blocked shot attempts taken by a given team. Since players tend to play more conservatively when nursing a lead, the graph above shows only shot attempts from “close” situations, a.k.a. within one in the opening two periods and tied in the third.
As you can tell, the Penguins have had the puck much more in recent weeks as Martin and Letang have returned to the ice. Malkin practiced Tuesday and is likely to come back during the first round, which would boost Pittsburgh’s possession numbers even more.
The Pens’ improving health, high-end talent and elite special teams – Pittsburgh had the top-ranked power play (23.4 percent) and the fifth-best penalty kill (85.1 percent) – makes them the clear favorite in their series with Columbus. I think Pittsburgh will surprise some people who have seen it go 7-7-3 to close the season with a compromised lineup and little tangible motivation.
The Blue Jackets are a solid club and a good story, but I don’t see them winning a single game in this series. Penguins win in four games.
My other first-round predictions: Red Wings in 7, Rangers in 6, Lightning in 6, Avalanche in 6, Blackhawks in 7, Stars in 6, Sharks in 6.
Matt Shetler: While I am a bit worried about the way the Pens are playing heading into the playoffs, they are the better team in this matchup. This will be a good series, against a franchise that is light on playoff experience, to get their feet wet for the playoff grind. It’s also a good matchup for Marc-Andre Fleury against a team that wasn’t particuarly a high-scoring team, as the Blue Jackets scored under three goals per game on the season and managed just eight goals in five regular season games against the Penguins. Finally the Pens power play should have great success against a Jackets penalty kill unit that ranked just in the middle of the pack during the regular season. Penguins in 5, Bruins in 4, Rangers in 7, Canadiens in 6, Avalanche in 5, Blackhawks in 6, Ducks in 5, Kings in 7.
Brett Tunno: The pens have won all five matchups against Columbus this season, and I think the Pens simply have the Blue Jackets’ number. Though injuries have hit the Pens hard, I look for Pittsburgh to play a phenomenal first-round playoff series, shaking off the taste of last year’s Eastern Conference final sweep to Boston. Columbus won’t be able to handle Crosby, and look for Beau Bennett to be a key player. Penguins in 5, Red Wings in 7, Flyers in 6, Canadiens in 6, Avalanche in 5, Blues in 7, Ducks in 6, Kings in 6.
Drew Shetler: While I think this is going to be a low-scoring series, the Penguins have more talent than Columbus and should win this series easily. The X factor will be Fleury. He played great in the regular season and needs to get off to a good start in the playoffs and build up his confidence. Penguins in 5, Bruins in 6, Rangers in 6, Canadiens in 6, Avalanche in 5, Blues in 7, Ducks in 5, Sharks in 6.
Larry Snyder: I think this will be the series in which Fleury wants to rebuild his playoff reputation from last season. Special teams could be a deciding factor in this series. The Pens outscored the Blue Jackets 16-7, and five of those goals came on the 19 power-play attempts Pittsburgh had in the series. By contrast, Columbus scored one power-play goal on 14 attempts. The games will be close as the Blue Jackets are not afraid of Pittsburgh. Columbus had more shots on goal in the five-game series, outshooting Pittsburgh 155-145. It should also be noted that No. 1 goalie Sergei Bobrovsky appeared in just one game against the Penguins, missing the others because of injury or sickness. Penguins in 5, Bruins in 6, Rangers in 6, Canadiens in 7, Wild in 7, Blackhawks in 5, Ducks in 5, Kings in 7.
Hunter Hodies: I think Flower bounces back. Penguins in 5, Bruins in 7, Rangers in 7, Lightning in 7, Avalanche in 5, Blackhawks in 6, Ducks in 6, Kings in 7.
NHL columnist and all-around hockey fan Joe Depto joined me for today’s Gospel of Hockey podcast on City of Champions Radio. We broke down the Penguins-Blue Jackets series bit by bit and also discussed how we see the rest of the Stanley Cup playoffs going: