The Penguins needed only five games to dispose of the Columbus Blue Jackets in Round 1 of the Stanley Cup playoffs, clinching the opening series at home with a 5-2 victory Thursday night.
Dispose is a fitting word to describe it, as the Blue Jackets played like garbage the entire series. When they weren’t attempting garbage hits, they got a few garbage goals. And ultimately, they lost the series because of garbage goaltending. Even their mascot looks like a garbage can.
So now with Columbus in the rearview mirror, the Pens will have almost a week to rest up and get ready for Round 2 against the Washington Capitals or Toronto Maple Leafs, who each won two of the first four games in that series, heading into play Friday.
We learned a lot about the Penguins in Round 1. We always knew the offense was going to carry this team, but now we know they can lean on their defense, as well. Specifically, their most important defensive asset right now: Marc-Andre Fleury. We know of the two teams the Pens could face in Round 2, one is a little better than the other, and we definitely know what that series could look like.
We know a lot about the Pens right now and their journey ahead, and here’s another numbered list to prove it. It’s the five things we know about the Round 1 win:
1. The Pens are getting scoring from everyone.
As of Thursday night, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, Sidney Crosby and rookie Jake Guentzel are the top-four point scorers in the entire NHL postseason. To have the top-four scorers in the postseason is impressive enough, but the Pens scoring depth beyond that in Round 1 maybe more impressive.
The Pens had 17 of 18 skaters register at least one point in the first round. Couple that with the four guys at the top of the leaderboard, and it’s no wonder the Pens averaged over four goals per game and currently lead the NHL in total goals.
The Pens are getting scoring when it counts, too. The power play is white hot, clicking at a 33-percent success rate. Kessel and Malkin have been making their mark there, both notching four points apiece on the man advantage against Columbus.
Predicting the Pens will score a lot of goals is easier than predicting the weather — we know that’s their bread-and-butter gameplan for victory. And we also know the Pens will take all the offense they can get, from whomever the get it from. What we didn’t see coming was they wouldn’t really need it — at least not yet, anyway — because…
2. The defense has been good enough, so far.
It was the biggest question facing the Pens and, by the end of the first-round series, it appears we at least have an answer for what the Pens defense is going to look like these playoffs.
Ian Cole and Justin Schultz are going to be relied upon to do the majority of the heavy lifting; they’ll continue to play with Sid and the Kids, meaning they’ll need to support the offense, while taking on the tough match-ups Crosby usually sees from opponents. The remainder of the minutes will be distributed evenly — it worked out that way in Round 1 and seems to be the Pens best chance and getting through the postseason sans Kris Letang.
Allowing 2.60 goals against Columbus wasn’t great, but there is a real reason for concern moving forward, because that stat could have been worse. The Penguins didn’t control the puck enough against Columbus, and according to Natural Stat Trick, not one Penguins defenseman was a positive-possession player at even strength in the first round. Ian Cole and Trevor Daley were the only two defensemen who were even above 48 percent, with Ron Hainsey at the bottom of that barrel with 41 percent, meaning 59 percent of the total shot attempts that occurred in the series while Hainsey was on the ice were for Columbus. That’s really bad.
But, for now, the Pens defense survived. The defense survived primarily because of one player in particular (see No. 3, below). And while we don’t know if he’ll be the guy in Round 2 yet, we do know the Pens can count on him again if they need to. And we know, without question, he’s earned the right to be in the discussion.
3. Marc-Andre Fleury has been tremendous.
The .933 save percentage is pretty good. Good enough to win more than lose, without question. But Marc-Andre Fleury has made his biggest impact by bailing the Penguins out when they need him the most.
The Pens were outshot by a total of 71 to 39 in the first period of the Columbus series, but were only outscored 5-3 in opening frame thanks to Fleury keeping things close. He kept the Pens in it again in Game 5, as the Jackets were up 8 to 1 in shots before Phil Kessel scored the power play goal to get Pittsburgh on the board. Fleury then went on to make 48 saves to seal the series. Let’s not forget, he also saved Game 3 with an incredible stop off his head in over time:
We don’t know if Matt Murray will be healthy for Round 2. We don’t know which way Mike Sullivan would lean right now even if Murray were healthy enough to play. What we do know is Marc-Andre Fleury stood on his head in Round 1, and if he does get the nod to start in Round 2, the Pens are going to need him. Because…
4. Round 2 isn’t going to be this easy.
As completely and utterly unlikely as it sounds, the Washington Capitals and Toronto Maple Leafs are headed for Game 5 with their series tied at two. The series is guaranteed to go at least six games, so the Pens will have the advantage of being rested, no matter who they end up playing. The Caps host Game 5 Friday then Toronto hosts Game 6 Sunday, with a potential Game 7 looming in Washington on Tuesday.
The Caps had the league’s best record this season, loaded up at the trade deadline and now appear to have the lineup to give them their best shot at winning a Stanley Cup. They’re a complete team from top to bottom. They score a ton of goals. They play great defense. They have a very good goaltender. T-shirts with Our Year printed on them are everywhere. We know what the Caps are all about.
The Leafs are the young, upstart team. Their speed and skill has the older, more experienced Caps on the ropes right now. They play a similar style as the Penguins, Pittsburgh just does it a little better. But their talent is real and would prove to be a formidable opponent for the Pens.
Heading into the postseason, any Pens fan would tell you they’d rather see Toronto in the second round. They’re the lower seed with lesser experience, after all. But a match-up with the old, familiar foes from Washington is what the playoffs are all about. The Pens-Caps rivalry getting ratcheted up in the postseason is the drama that makes the NHL playoffs so great. The game’s two best players, who captain two of the best teams in the league — how could you not want to experience another series that could potentially cause a heart attack? Embrace the heart attack. Plus, there’s nothing like beating the best team and completely earning it.
We know, either way, Round 2 is going to be a challenge. But we should feel good about the Pens’ chances because, no matter who they play, they’ll have the best player in the game.
5. Sidney Crosby: The True Captain Clutch
Alex Ovechkin is great. Auston Matthews is another generational talent. But nobody can touch Crosby right now.
His goal to put the Pens up 4-2 in Game 5 was otherworldly:
NASA couldn’t calculate how that goes in from that angle.
Like Fleury, Crosby’s biggest moments have all come with the game on the line. He was dominant in Game 2, earning three points in the 3-1 win. The work he put in on his assist to Jake Guentzel to win Game 3 was vintage Crosby. The goal in Game 5 came just as the Jackets were starting to gain momentum, and ultimately killed any hope they had for a comeback right then and there.
Crosby had a solid first round, but the Penguins are going to need him to go to that next level — the level he was on when he won a Conn Smythe last season. We know Crosby can go there, and we know the Pens are going to need him to continue to come up big, especially when the game is on the line.
Do we know anyone better? Didn’t think so.