Columbus' William Karlsson and Pittsburgh's Phil Kessel battle in the corner
Odds are that the Blue Jackets won’t be able to fight back from a 3-0 deficit against the Penguins, but the rest of the East will be cheering for Columbus to make Pittsburgh fight to the bitter end.
Things got a bit dicey at the end there, with the Penguins almost clawing all the way back in a game they trailed 3-0, 4-2 and 5-3 at different points in the contest, but when the full 60 minutes had been played in Game 4 of the first-round tilt between Pittsburgh and Columbus, the Blue Jackets had finally pulled out their first victory of the series.
And, for that, the rest of the Eastern Conference breathed a sigh of relief.
While the six additional Eastern teams currently attempting to advance to the second round will say all the right things in the days that lead up to the culmination of round one, the truth is each club, no matter how slight, is keeping an eye on the goings on around the league. Looking out West, they’ll see three teams one loss away from elimination with some second-round match-ups already on the cusp of being set. And in their own conference, those Eastern teams will see a handful of tough match-ups mixed in with a dominant Penguins team that has looked every bit a club ready to fight for a second-straight Stanley Cup.
That’s why the rest of the conference is going to be thankful that, if even for one more night, the Blue Jackets have slowed down what seems to be inevitable at this point. Yes, Columbus coming back in the series isn’t impossible, but a team recovering from a 3-0 deficit is something that has happened so rarely — four times in league history — that for the Blue Jackets to claw all the way back and punch their ticket to the second round seems improbable.
So, instead, the hope for those Eastern teams wishing to make their way deep into the playoffs is that the Penguins have a tougher time in the opening round than it appeared they were going to after three games.
The most obvious reason why is that the longer this series goes, the more bumps and bruises the Penguins are going to take. Whether or not you’re a believer in how much physical play matters throughout a series, each successive hit the Blue Jackets throw is one more that a Pittsburgh player has to absorb. And if those don’t have time to add up over the course of a series, they certainly do over the course of a post-season. Columbus has already laid a licking on anything that moves, too. Through the first four games, the Blue Jackets have thrown 160 hits, punishing the Penguins at any opportunity, and the longer the series goes with Columbus averaging 40 hits per game, the more bumps and bruises some of Pittsburgh’s best will have to fight through in the rounds that come.
If the Blue Jackets can drag out the series, it also gives those Penguins who are already dealing with a lump or two less time to recover. While there’s no indication as to what the schedule will hold in the second round, let’s imagine for a second Pittsburgh won Tuesday night. Ottawa and Boston aren’t scheduled to play Game 7, if necessary, until April 26. That means there would have been the possibility of at least one full week of rest for the Penguins. That’s seven days to ice up, stretch out and get a reprieve from physically punishing hockey. Now, the best the Penguins can do might be five days or possibly less depending on the result of Game 5.
That rest is going to be of utmost importance as the playoffs wind on, to be sure. The post-season grind is no joke and Pittsburgh is one season removed from playing into mid-June. A short summer and busy season that included a World Cup appearance for many of the Penguins’ stars means they’ve played a lot of hockey in the past year. Every additional minute is one more of wear and tear on the body without a period of significant rest.
And significant rest could be exactly what the doctor ordered for several players. Olli Maatta and Trevor Daley returned to action mere days before the start of the post-season and, while it’s no doubt been nice for both to see the ice, one has to wonder if either or both couldn’t use a few more days rest ahead of what will assuredly be an even more difficult second round. And this is to say nothing of what a sweep could do for Carl Hagelin, Chris Kunitz and goaltender Matt Murray. All three were integral parts of the 2016-17 Stanley Cup and have been forced to miss all four games of the series at this point. Kunitz is almost certainly out the rest of the round, regardless, but the series ending in a hurry allows Hagelin and Murray worry-free rest until the start of the second round, at which point one or both could be ready to go.
There also becomes the question of what another loss or two does to the Penguins’ goaltending situation. Tristan Jarry may be a distant third-string to Marc-Andre Fleury, but after posting a .972 save percentage through the first two games of the series, the Penguins stand-in No. 1 has allowed nine goals and boasts a .873 SP in Games 3 and 4. If Columbus can rattle Fleury’s cage in the upcoming games, does it hurt his confidence enough to shake him in time for the second round if he’s still the starter? Would it maybe encourage Pittsburgh to see what Jarry can do with hopes he can replicate the performance of Jeff Zatkoff from the year prior?
No matter who’s in goal, though, there isn’t a single team that has watched the Penguins play this post-season that will be excited at the prospect of squaring off against the defending champions. So, with a single win separating Pittsburgh from a trip to the divisional final, the Blue Jackets should be making fans out of the six other Eastern Conference teams because the only thing worse than facing the Penguins in the second round might be taking them on after they’ve been well rested.
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