The Columbus Blue Jackets came into their series with the defending Stanley Cup Pittsburgh Penguins as the rugged heavy-hitters, the team that could cut off the ice with their dogged forecheck and herd the Penguins’ defensemen in their own end.
In Games 1 and 2, they used their forecheck and physicality to throw hits in bunches like a heavyweight brawler.
It didn’t work.
Columbus dropped both games 3-1 and 4-1. Though they tipped Pittsburgh back on their heels in each of the games’ opening periods, Columbus’s inevitable adrenaline dump led to the Penguins’ lethal counterattack of speed and offensive zone puck possession.
Games 3-5 saw Columbus scaling back their hit output and rely on their wingers to create chances off the rush.
That didn’t work either.
Game 3 was a track meet. The Crosby and Malkin lines brought the team back from a 3-1 deficit in the first period and Jake Guentzel’s overtime hat trick goal cemented the win. Columbus did take Game 4, finally piercing the Pens’ ramshackle team defense. In Game 5, Pittsburgh responded, mopped things up, and stymied Columbus each time they seemed to regain the momentum.
The Penguins exposed the Blue Jackets’ game. Columbus played the ferocious brawler and the Penguins assumed the role of the savvy boxer. The brawler is intimidating because he swings for the fences with every punch, relishes initiating exchanges, and doesn’t mind taking a few on the jaw himself to land one of his own.
However, the Penguins did what shrewd boxers do. They keep the brawler at length with a jab, wait for him to overextend, and counterpunch.
And that’s what the Penguins did.
When Columbus came flying out, the Penguins ate their hits and despite it often taking more than a period, the Pens did establish their forecheck. Their strength at the center position and speed allowed them to carry the puck into Columbus’s zone at will and establish a cycle and puck possession.
The Pens demonstrated an ability to score goals in bunches when Columbus tried to smother them, and the counterpunches began to crack the brawler mentality.
Thus, the Jackets had to give up the brawler mentality and attempt to redefine themselves in the middle of the series—a death knell for a team in the playoffs facing an opponent with superior skill and talent.
Pittsburgh was far from perfect. Their breakouts were often fractured; they often turned the puck over in their own zone; and their top six forwards were not as defensively responsible on the back check.
Despite this, the Penguins illustrated that you don’t beat them by turning the game into a recreation of Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier’s 1975 slugfest, the Thrilla in Manilla. Columbus’s brawler approach was fearsome but rigid. Once the Pens countered the Blue Jackets, Columbus was revealed to be inflexible.
Columbus is no slouch of team, but they could only kick the hornet’s nest, not corral it.
The Pens have plenty to clean up before they face the winner of the Washington/Toronto series, and I’d rather see them not try to play pinball with other teams in terms of goal scoring. But they landed enough counterpunches to lay Columbus on the canvas after 5 games, and they’ll take that few extra days rest.
Kevin Cochrane is a writer and college student. Like what you read? Follow him on Twitter @RunFree_KC, find him on Facebook, or click the follow button at the bottom of the page to get Town Crier’s latest updates. Want to read more? Visit his blog at restandrefuge.wordpress.com which offers a Christian perspective on the surrounding culture. You can contact him with comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.