The Columbus Blue Jackets are playing in their first playoff game in over four years tonight as they open up the NHL playoffs on the road in Pittsburgh. Not having won a single postseason game in their short franchise history, the last-and-only-time Columbus was in the postseason, they left just as quickly getting swept by the Detroit Red Wings. The Jackets coming into this series have not been getting much respect either, but if there ever was a time to change that mindset, Game One would be a great start.
As the whole city of Columbus watches their team play for the first time in the post season since 2009, all eyes will be on Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky. Although skeptics have pointed out that Columbus has not won against Pittsburgh this season, the Jackets were without Bobrovsky for almost the entire season series, playing in just one half of a game. Columbus’ defense stumbled mightily against the Penguins during the season series this year, allowing 16 goals in just five games. However, Bobrovsky is getting hot at the right time and over the past two weeks has stonewalled every opponent, posting a 1.82 GAA and a .945 save percentage to go with five wins.
On the other hand, Bobrovsky’s playoff track record is not exactly impressive. In seven career postseason appearances, Bobrovsky has never won a single game and has posted a .848 save percentage to go with a 4.04 GAA, not exactly something to hang his hat on. However, “Bob”, as they call him in Columbus, is playing with a much better defensive team than when he was with Philadelphia and is on a torrid streak as of recently. In net for the Penguins is another goaltender with a lot to prove: Marc-Andre Fleury.
After getting shelled in the playoffs last season and being replaced by backup Thomas Vokoun, Fleury went to see a sports psychologist, a sign that the team’s number one goaltender might have some confidence issues. This game is quite a statement game for Fleury as well as for the Jackets, as Fleury over the past two postseasons has posted a 3.90 GAA and a .857 save percentage. If the Blue Jackets want to put up a big statement in this first win, their offense is going to need to score as quickly as possible and as much as possible, as Fleury has proven time and time again to be weak minded in the playoffs.
Playing against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round will be another big statement opportunity for the upstart Blue Jackets because the Pens have been a staple of the NHL playoffs for quite some time. If Columbus wants to prove they can handle the big stage, they will have to beat the big guys that have been running it and they will have to do it on the road. The Penguins are loaded with star players in Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Chris Kunitz to name a few. Columbus got rid of one of their only three star players in Marion Gaborik (Johnson and Bobrovsky being the other two), but have instead been successful with a bunch of youngsters and players with names not as “household” as what the Pens have. With names like Dubinsky, Anisimov, Jenner and Johansen, the Blue Jackets have been even more successful in the absence of Gaborik and would appear to be ready to face the best-of-the-best.
The Columbus Blue Jackets can use this road game to silence the Penguins fans, to silence the doubters, to get into the head of the opposing goalie, and to show the “star” team standing across from them that they will not be taken lightly. If Columbus can get off to a great start on the road against the Pens tonight, look for this series to shake up and go the distance.
Commentary by Ryne Vyles