Why the Penguins will beat the Blue Jackets in the first round:
1. Special teams can be decisive in low-scoring playoff games, and the Penguins have the best tandem of any club in the tournament. Despite poor numbers in two glorified exhibition games last weekend, their power play finished the regular season tied for first in the league (23.4 percent), while their penalty-killing slipped to fifth (85 percent). It's hard to predict just how lethal the power play will be when both units are intact and have a chance to mesh, but it's safe to assume opponents won't be eager to find out.
2. By now, the league-high total of man-games the Penguins lost to injury and illness -- 529 -- probably has been tattooed onto the memory of everyone who follows this team. It's also no secret that several players who fill major roles -- guys like Evgeni Malkin, Paul Martin, Kris Letang and James Neal -- missed a quarter of the season or more. Those absences surely hurt the Penguins' record, but also mean those key players were spared a lot of wear-and-tear during games. While rehabbing an injury isn't easy, that unscheduled rest could pay off as the playoffs grind on.
3. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury is due for a big-time performance in the postseason. He has had four disappointing ones in a row since helping the Penguins win a Cup in 2009, but seems to have a renewed confidence and focus since Mike Bales took over as goaltending coach. He'll be playing not only for another ring, but probably for his future in the organization, so Fleury will have no lack of incentive.
Why the Penguins won't beat the Blue Jackets in the first round:
1. Notice that reference above to all the man-games the Penguins lost, and to how many high-profile players missed a significant chunk of the regular season? See any mention of a quota having been filled? Well, that hasn't happened, because the NHL has a salary cap, not an injury cap. And considering how often the Penguins have had important players knocked out of the lineup in the past six months or so, why would anyone think their poor fortune will end just because the regular season has?
2. Unlike 2013, when the Penguins' roster was equal -- if not superior -- to any in the playoffs, their personnel no longer seems to intimidate opponents. Although there is no shortage of all-star, even world-class, talent in their lineup, other teams appear to respect, not fear, it. Plus, the Penguins have to prove they have the discipline to grind out victories against quality opponents when talent alone won't get them by.
3. Fleury has made a habit of putting together strong regular seasons, then fizzling when the playoffs begin. A year ago, he stumbled so badly in Round 1 that Tomas Vokoun took over as the go-to goalie against the New York Islanders and held onto the job until Boston swept the Penguins in the Eastern Conference final. Quality goaltending is critical to any championship run, and nothing in Fleury's recent playoff history suggests the Penguins can assume he's going to provide it.