By: Danny Denlinger, GZ Sports Report Contributor
In arguably the most anticipated Round 1 playoff matchup of the season, two teams that could be argued as the best in the NHL during respected durations of the season geared up in a fast paced Game 1 of a certainly entertaining playoff series. Going forward, the series has some interesting storylines, aside from the usual Dubinsky-Crosby matchup that comes around every time the Blue Jackets and Penguins play. Here are some key takeaways from the Penguins 3-1 Game 1 win against Columbus:
- Sid and the Kids line dominated the back checking game. Throughout the season this line held the team’s offensive firepower, but last night the showed their true mettle by backchecking as well as any unit the Pens threw out there. The determination of this line to play a full 200 ft. game will be critical in this series, as their ability to back check helped negate multiple Colombus scoring chances. We know their offensive potential, but if they keep up this defense this could be arguably the best line of any team in the playoffs.
- Marc-Andre Fleury withstanding a surge of Blue Jackets scoring chances in the first period, during which the Pens were outshot 16-3, solidified Jim Rutherford’s decision to hold onto him past the trade deadline. His experience to come in on short notice, after Matt Murray was hurt in warm ups, and weather the storm to keep his team in the game was invaluable. This performance for Fleury showed that he is still one of the NHL’s best goaltenders, but early on it also showed a small glimpse into one of his large problems. His confidence in handling the puck on dump ins will be something to look for, as he has a history of mismanaging the puck on dump ins, though towards the end of the game last night he showed some promise, it is still something to look for in a team like Columbus that thrives on the dump and chase type offense. This offense relies on dumping the puck and a heavy forechecking game from the forwards in which they finish their checks and wear down the opposing defense. With an already thin blue line, due to the injury of Kris Letang before the playoffs, and his consequential ineligibility to play during the playoffs this year, the health of the defensmen of this team will be heavily reliant on Fleury’s ability to come out and play the puck and take some of the pressure off of them so they aren’t getting pounded by forechecking forwards on Columbus the whole night. Make no mistake though, without Fleury in Game 1 it is very probable the Penguins lose that game.
- Playoff version of Phil Kessel was alive and very well during Game 1. With an amazing kick pass assist on a Bryan Rust goal, and a goal on an absolute snipe on the powerplay, Kessel returned to the playoff form he exhibited last year when he became a Pittsburgh sports legend. If he can replicate last year’s performance and develop more chemistry with Evgeni Malkin as his center, the Penguins can assert themselves back into the position of having the most offensive firepower in the NHL, and the reality of a Phil Kessel sign on Mt. Washington becomes ever more realistic.
- Discipline and experience were both key for the Pens in Game 1, as their ability to withstand the storm the Blue Jackets unleashed on them during the first period, and respond by taking a 3-0 lead was something Stanley Cup winning teams are made of. They withstood a physical barrage from forechecking Blue Jackets forwards, yet stayed disciplined, not falling into the trap most John Tortorella coached teams like to employ by trying to draw penalties after the whistle. The Penguins have one of the most experienced teams in terms of playoff games played, and have a Stanley Cup winning head coach behind the bench. Their experience and through that, discipline, clearly showed in game 1 and if they can keep that up, their power play advantage of 3, to just 2 for the Blue Jackets should only add to the offensive output the Pens managed in game 1.
Going forward this series shapes up to be as compelling as any other first round matchup out there, there’s a reason Columbus finished the season with 108 points, good enough for 3rd in the Eastern Conference, and the Pens had 111, which was good enough for 2nd in the East. Both teams have offensive firepower, and even if the Pens defend home ice and win Game 2, I would still be surprised if this series was over before 6 games. With that being said after Game 1, I see the Pens winning this series in 6 games, and for Marc-Andre Fleury to stay in net even when Matt Murray comes back, if he can stay as hot as he was in Game 1.