PITTSBURGH — The Columbus Blue Jackets are the closest NHL team to the Pittsburgh Penguins, at least geographically. The two franchises are separated by 185 miles of highway. Their resumes and the expectations that come with them, however, are worlds apart.
The next postseason game Columbus wins will be its first since entering the league in 2000. Call it the byproduct of a dozen seasons spent mostly as so much expansion fodder for the top-heavy Western Conference.
Moved to the Eastern Conference as part of realignment, the Blue Jackets have made no secret of their desire to start a regional rivalry with the Penguins. The foundation can be laid over the next two weeks as they meet in the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Game 1 is tonight in Pittsburgh, where the hosts are doing their best to not get overconfident despite sweeping all five regular season games between the clubs, outscoring Columbus 16-7 in the process.
“They were good hockey games,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. “I don’t think you can say ‘Hey we won five,’ and that’s going to have some large bearing on this series.”
Maybe, though the chasm in experience level between the two teams will likely only grow deeper in the opener. Penguins center Evgeni Malkin practiced with his teammates on Tuesday for the first time since injuring his foot March 23.
The 2012 league MVP said he feels “great” though his status won’t be determined until shortly before faceoff. His presence would make the Metropolitan Division champions and perennial Stanley Cup contenders as healthy as they’ve been all year.
It’s not the same for Columbus, which will be without veteran forward Nathan Horton for the entire series and center R.J. Umberger and winger Nick Foligno for Game 1 because of lingering injuries. The Blue Jackets figure it’s just one more thing to overcome.
Here are five things to look for in what the Penguins hope will be a long playoff stretch:
FOCUSED FLEURY: Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, right, is just 14-16 in the postseason since helping Pittsburgh to the franchise’s third Cup in 2009 and was benched during last year’s run to the conference finals.
He carried his typical heavy workload during the regular season and finished tied for second in the NHL with 39 wins. Bylsma has praised Fleury for making needed adjustments and his teammates certainly appear to have his back.
“I think he’s done everything he’s had to do to bounce back,” Penguins star Sidney Crosby said. “As players, we’re behind him and we know what he can bring.”
THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT: The Blue Jackets are the NHL’s youngest team (average age 26.1) and the entire roster has just 251 career games of playoff experience. Compare that to the Penguins, who are the league’s fourth-oldest team (28.6) years and have a combined 1,154 games of playoff experience. Yet the Blue Jackets insist any gap that exists will disappear when the puck drops.
“It’s a new season,” Blue Jackets forward Boone Jenner said. “Right now, it’s zip-zip and we’re going to start Day 1.”
BETTER BOBROVSKY: The last time Columbus goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky started a playoff game, the Penguins torched Bobrovsky for five goals on just 18 shots in a loss while playing for Philadelphia. The last time he faced the Penguins in general, he gave up three goals in 23 minutes back in November before being pulled.
How long the Blue Jackets keep the series competitive will likely rely on how long Bobrovsky can keep Crosby, Malkin and the NHL’s second-highest scoring team at bay. Bobrovsky insists it’s not an impossible task. He comes into the series hot, having won each of his last four starts while allowing a total of six goals.
COACHING CONNECTION: There won’t be many secrets between Bylsma and Columbus coach Todd Richards. Bylsma served as an assistant under Richards when both were coaching for Wilkes Barre/Scranton in the American Hockey League. It’s why Richards is certain the Penguins aren’t already penciling in second-round plans.
“They’ve got a very good coach, good leaders on the team,” Richards said. “I think they’ve been in many situations before.”
SPECIAL TEAMS: The Penguins finished with the league’s top power play unit and was the fifth-best team in the league a man down. The Blue Jackets will need to stay out of the penalty box while hoping to frustrate Pittsburgh into some mental lapses that give Columbus the man advantage.
The Penguins can look like mere mortals when playing 5-on-5. Columbus actually had a plus-8 goal differential when playing at even strength. Pittsburgh was only plus-7.