The Penguins currently sit up 3-0 in the 1st round of the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs over Metropolitan Division Rival Columbus. The Penguins and Blue Jackets have faced each other in the playoffs once before, and in 2014, the Penguins won that series 4-2. But this time around, this whole series feels different. It was anticipated to be one of the closest series in the playoffs, maybe even the toughest in the East. So how have the Penguins managed to get up 3-0 over a Blue Jackets team that is better this year than they were in 2014. I’ve got two real reasons why:
Yep, Marc-Andre Fleury is one reason. In 2014, Fleury was still going through his playoff yips that last way too long. He was a bit more solid than his years where we was letting in beach balls in a first-round exit against Philadelphia or when he got benched in favor of a Tomas Vokoun that was past his prime. He had a mediocre .912 save percentage in the series and gave up some really bad goals. He really only had one solid game, where he stopped 23 of 24 shots in game five.
This time around, Fleury has been thrust into the starting role when Matt Murray reaggravated a groin injury in warm ups for game one. Fleury has answered the call and had two really solid games at home, then started game three a bit shaky, but finished solid and made a game-saving save with his head in overtime. He’s got a .945 save percentage in three games. He’s a big reason why the Penguins are on the verge of a sweep, and it couldn’t have happened to a better guy.
Same Game, Different Result
The Blue Jackets are a physical team, and they’ve brought the fight again this series. In both 2014 and 2017, they’ve wanted to push the Penguins around and irritate them and rattle them. The Penguins gave in to the Columbus tactics in 2014, most notably, Brandon Dubinsky really getting under Sidney Crosby‘s skin most of the series. 2017 has seen Columbus try the same thing. Now even though the Penguins won in six games in 2014, why did it feel like the Penguins lost that series and it feels like the Penguins may actually sweep a series that was predicted by many to go the distance?
Enter Mike Sullivan.
We saw Sullivan really send a simple, two-worded message to his players last year: just play. And it was a big reason why the Penguins won the Stanley Cup. Teams like New York and Washington didn’t scare them. It didn’t matter if it was a bigger team that was going to punch you in the mouth or if it was a team built on lightning-fast speed like Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh was just going to play their game. The Penguins are replicating that this time around, and Columbus at times looks like they’ve forgotten that these are actually hockey games for a few minutes. Dubinsky isn’t rattling Crosby, Calvert’s illegal assault of Tom Kuhnhackl didn’t rattle them, and it just seems like Columbus is tiring themselves out in trying to beat up the Penguins. They came out flying in game three, pretty much running on pure adrenaline, but it was at a pace they couldn’t sustain. They’re not built for it. They’re built to beat teams up and grind them down. The Penguins aren’t giving in and taking the bait, and now they are one win from advancing. Thank you Mike Sullivan.
Expect Columbus to come out and try several different things tonight. They’re backs are up against the wall and will be playing desperate hockey. Even if Columbus wins tonight, and barring a miracle comeback, 2017 has shown just how much the Penguins have grown up in three years. Again, thank you Mike Sullivan.