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At last, the best time of the year is here.

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Playoff hockey is back, and so, too, is the team that currently owns the longest active playoff streak – the Detroit Red Wings Pittsburgh Penguins. It’s finally time for the returning Stanley Cup champs to defend their throne. And if all indications appear to be correct, this year will certainly be a more difficult route to victory for your 2017 Penguins. It won’t exactly be Donald Trump winning the White House difficult, but it ain’t going to easy, either.

Let’s get to it.

Head to Head

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The 2017 regular season series between Pittsburgh and Columbus ended in a draw for both teams (2-1-1). The bottom dwellers of the Metropolitan Division only a year ago, the Blue Jackets surprised the hell out of the NHL in 2017 by recording a franchise-best 108 points. The only problem, though, was that they currently play in the best division in hockey. Normally, 108 points should be good enough to lock up first place. That’s not exactly the case when your division also includes the Penguins and Capitals. Pittsburgh, on the other hand, basically finished the regular season exactly how you’d expect: 100+ points (111 to be specific), a thousand injuries, and trailing behind the perpetual regular season champions (aka the Washington Capitals).

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Judging by the numbers, it looks like there will be a shit ton of offense in this series, with the Penguins having the slight edge in the scoring department. These numbers don’t tell the entire story here, though. On paper, the Blue Jackets appear to be more balanced as they were one of only two teams in the entire NHL (the Capitals being the other team) to finish top-6 in both goals for and against this season. However, that still doesn’t make up for the fact that the Blue Jackets have limped into the playoffs with a 3-5-2 record in their final 10 regular season games (one of those wins being the last game of the year while most of the regulars sat). The Penguins, on the other hand, ended their season a little bit better by going 4-4-2 in their final 10 games. Not a remarkable difference, but it would remiss to mention one of those wins came in a 4-1 shellacking over the Blue Jackets last Tuesday with about half of their lineup out with injuries.

Forwards To Watch

Sidney Crosby and Brandon Dubinsky. This one’s a given, but here’s a fun fact you might now know: Sidney Crosby has never scored a playoff goal against a team that has had Brandon Dubinsky on it. Nobody, and I mean nobody, plays like a bigger dick against Crosby than Brandon Dubinsky. These two absolutely hate each other, and unfortunately, you have to give credit to Dubinsky. He’s possibly the only guy in the NHL that consistently gets into Sid’s brain on a regular basis. Certainly a difficult thing to do, but I wouldn’t be too surprised to see that streak end this series.

It will also be interesting to see how the Blue Jackets’ top scorers fare in the playoffs. Cam Atkinson (62 points), Alexander Wennberg (59 points), and Brandon Saad (53 points) are each entering the postseason rather cold considering all three of them have scored 10 points or less in their final 20 regular season games. On the Penguins front, hot dog aficionado Phil Kessel will be entering the postseason having only scored 2 goals in his final 25 regular season games. Certainly not the type of production you want to see down the stretch by Phil the Thrill if you’re a Penguin fan, but if there is one thing we can all agree on, it’s that the playoffs are built for a physical specimen like Kessel. As long as Phil’s shooting pucks at the net somewhere close to his 2016 postseason rate (4.08 shots per game), we’re bound to see him bury a few pucks this series (and potentially provide a few solid interviews).

Defensemen To Watch

Before the puck even drops tonight, the Penguins are already at a UUUGE disadvantage on their back end. With Kris Letang out for the duration of the playoffs, all eyes will turn to Justin Schultz (and to a lesser degree, Olli Maatta, if he returns from injury). The Penguins 7th defenseman last season, Schultz stepped up in a big way this year by averaging almost 20 minutes of ice time. He also tied for fifth among all NHL defensemen with 47 points. That’s not saying the Penguins will be able to fill the massive void of Kris Letang, but if Schultz can provide anywhere close to that type of production this postseason, Penguins’ fans can loosen their buttholes a bit. For the Blue Jackets, the player to watch is rookie defenseman Zach Werenski. Werenski essentially mirrored the production of Justin Schultz this season by averaging 20:55 of ice time along with scoring 47 points. After missing the last four games due to a shoulder injury, Werenski will add a nice boost to the Blue Jackets’ power play that finished the regular season with an awful 1-for-23 conversion rate. And here’s a fun fact about the 19-year old rookie phenom – he’s actually 12-years old.

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There’s still a good chance Werenski can grow better facial hair than Sidney Crosby, though.

Goaltending

On paper, Columbus has the advantage at goaltender. Sergei Bobrovsky led all goalies in the regular season with a .931 save percentage and also came in 3rd with 41 wins. Bobrovsky’s the consensus Vezina Trophy winner this year; however, he does own an .890 save percentage in 13 career postseason games. Bobrovsky’s a huge question mark for Blue Jackets’ fans. Will he be the same guy that stood on his head all regular season, or will he look like a slice of swiss cheese? Only time will tell. For the Penguins, “rookie” goaltender Matt Murray will be the starting in net for his second straight postseason. How did he do last postseason, you may ask? He did okay – 15 wins and a .923 save percentage. He also did a bit of heavy lifting.

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And if Murray fucks up this year, you may ask? “Backup” goaltender Marc Andre Fleury will go between the pipes.

Prediction

Pens in 6.

Also, at long last, Carl Hagelin returns to the lineup at some point in this series to reunite the HBK Line.

Goddamn, is that just the most beautiful collage of human beings you’ve ever seen in your life.

Pump Up Time

If this video doesn’t make you wanna run through a wall then you’ve got something wrong with your brain.