Monstrous edge in experience provides Penguins with no guarantee for success
April 15, 2014 10:59 PM
Penguins defenseman Olli Maatta and winger Chris Kunitz pressure each other in front of the goal Tuesday at practice.
By Shelly Anderson / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The numbers, as they speak to experience, tilt so far in the Penguins' direction that it's a wonder the Columbus Blue Jackets aren't hanging on for dear life before they step onto the ice for Game 1 of the first-round playoff matchup tonight at Consol Energy Center.
Matchup: Penguins vs. Columbus Blue Jackets, 7:38 p.m. today, Consol Energy Center.
TV, Radio: Root Sports, WXDX-FM (105.9).
Probable goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins; Sergei Bobrovsky for Blue Jackets.
Penguins: Are 14-4-1 all time vs. Columbus. ... Were 38-4-2 when scoring first in regular season. ... Jussi Jokinen finished regular season with four-game points streak (three goals, one assist).
Blue Jackets: Allowed 16 goals in their eight regular-season games in April. ... Finished tied for first in NHL with 31.8 hits per game. ... Ryan Johansen ended regular season with six-game points streak (three goals, five assists).
Hidden stat: Each of the Penguins' last four regular-season games went to a shootout or overtime.
Penguins players have amassed 1,154 career playoff games; Blue Jackets players, 251.
Penguins players have a collective 162 playoff goals; Blue Jackets players, 44.
Nine Penguins have a combined 11 Stanley Cup titles. The Blue Jackets have one player on their roster who has won a Stanley Cup -- Nathan Horton, who is out for this round after having abdominal surgery.
The Penguins have five players with no playoff experience; the Blue Jackets have 12.
On a franchise level, the Penguins have won three Stanley Cups and been involved in 55 playoff series. Columbus has been to the playoffs just once before, getting swept in four games by Detroit in the first round in 2009.
"The other thing, too, is that I'm a rookie coach going into the playoffs," said Columbus' Todd Richards, who is in his fifth season as an NHL head coach but never before has led a team into the playoffs.
"I think it's a learning process for all of us."
From the Penguins' perspective, the edge in experience is great, but hardly gives them a free pass to the second round.
"You look at our first-round matchup last year, the [New York] Islanders, they were probably in kind of the same position Columbus is, and they gave us a heck of a series," said Penguins center Brandon Sutter, who got his first taste of the NHL postseason a year ago.
"I don't know how much it does matter sometimes, but we do have a veteran group, a lot of guys who have played a lot of games."
Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, who with 40 playoff goals accounts for nearly a quarter of those produced by the members of this team, understands the disadvantage of being a playoff newcomer.
"I remember playing in Ottawa," Crosby said of his first playoff series, in 2007. "That was quite the eye-opener. It felt like there were 10 guys on their team on the ice.
"But with a team that's had to work so hard and battle to get into the playoffs, I think [the Blue Jackets] are already in that mode, so it might not be quite as much of a jump. But it is another level."
One of the Blue Jackets who will be making his NHL playoff debut is center Ryan Johansen, who had a breakout season with 30 goals, 63 points.
Johansen, 21, and some of the others with no playoff experience have been getting pointers from a couple of the Columbus players who have at least some playoff games on their resumes.
"You can try and tell them what to expect, but I remember being in their shoes and people trying to tell me what to expect," center Brandon Dubinsky said. "When I dipped my feet in that water, there was nothing that was going to get me prepared for it."
Dubinsky found that instincts take over after a while, but it can be a jarring transition.
Or, as Columbus defenseman James Wisniewski described it: "Hockey on steroids. Every play matters. There is no small play ever in a game. Skill guys hit; hitters hit more and harder. It's an absolute war out there."
He softened his tone some when asked about what his younger teammates will face.
"I think you just experience it," Wisniewski said. "I think it's a little over-talked about, playoff experience. You're still playing hockey. You've still got to score more goals than the other team. You just have to understand that it's a seven-game series. There are going to be highs and lows."
Even if the Blue Jackets get their playoff legs under them fairly quickly, they would seem to be staring uphill at the Penguins, who swept the five-game season series and trailed for only 56 seconds in those games.
The Penguins won the Metropolitan Division, earning the second seed in the Eastern Conference, while Columbus scrambled to get a wild-card spot.
"Well, we're seven and they're No. 2, so the standings say that [we're underdogs]," said Columbus defenseman Ryan Murray. "We didn't win against them all year.
"I think a lot of people think that we're the underdogs. We know how good a team we are. We have to believe in that and show that."
Their vast edge in experience isn't enough to convince the Penguins that they can dismiss the Blue Jackets. They saw a team with bite while claiming each meeting in the regular season.
"Probably just knowing how hard they compete every game. A lot of those games were pretty physical, playoff atmosphere type games," Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik said. "Their compete level is going to be there every night. [We need to] just match that compete level and, hopefully, our talent can push us forward against them."
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