Pittsburgh Penguins (50-20-11, second, Metropolitan Division) vs. Columbus Blue Jackets (49-24-8, third, Metropolitan Division)
Why you have to watch: The Penguins and Blue Jackets have consistently been two of the top five teams in the league -- regardless of division, regardless of conference. One of them is going home after the first round, which is a shame and an indictment of the current division-heavy playoff format. This series will be like the Eastern Conference finals in the first round. On one hand, it's disappointing it has to happen so soon. On the other, it should be awesome hockey.
Head to head: Each team was 1-1-2 in the season series, so they both can claim a winning record. It's NHL math, thanks to the point awarded for an overtime loss. ... The Blue Jackets do enjoy one advantage, outscoring the Penguins 13-10 in head-to-head action without relying too heavily on the power play, an important distinction because the power play limped down the stretch for Columbus. ... The Blue Jackets were pretty dominant in the faceoff circle against the Penguins, winning 58.7 percent. Both the Penguins and Blue Jackets were under 50 percent on faceoffs on the season.
Injury fallout: Injuries loom large in this series. The biggest is to Penguins D Kris Letang, who is out four to six months after surgery to repair a herniated disk in his neck. "Letang is a huge loss," one Western Conference scout texted. The list of recent Stanley Cup winners without a dominant No. 1 defenseman is short. It's hard to see the Penguins repeating without Letang because he was so key to their win last spring. ... The potential return of D Olli Maatta (hand) would boost a banged-up Penguins defense. ... LW Carl Hagelin, who gave the Penguins such a speed edge in the playoffs last year, is out with a foot injury. The Penguins injuries are Exhibit A as to why it's so hard to repeat as Cup champs -- all those extra games in a winning season can make players more susceptible to injuries the following season. ... The injury to watch for Columbus is D Zach Werenski, who suffered an apparent shoulder injury against the Washington Capitals. So much of the Blue Jackets' offense and transition game runs through Werenski, if he's not 100 percent, that slows things down considerably. ... D Ryan Murray (hand) is also a long shot to play, meaning both teams have pretty banged-up blue lines.
Goalie advantage: Columbus G Sergei Bobrovsky, who leads the league with a .933 save percentage, is going to win the Vezina for the second time. He's the great equalizer for the Blue Jackets. ... That said, if I had to pick between Bobrovsky and Penguins G Matt Murray in a playoff series, I would pick Murray. He won a Stanley Cup last spring; his postseason save percentage is .923. He followed that up by posting exactly the save percentage (.923) during his first full season in the NHL. ... Bobrovsky has an .890 save percentage in 13 career postseason games. That's not a large sample size but just concerning enough that there might be an edge in goal for the Penguins, which is surprising considering the Blue Jackets will be starting a Vezina winner.
Coaching advantage: This might be the most fun subplot of the playoffs. Penguins coach Mike Sullivan and Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella are best friends. They talk a lot. Sullivan often leaned on Tortorella during the Penguins' Stanley Cup run last spring and won't have that voice on his side this spring. ... Both have Stanley Cups (Tortorella won with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004), but Tortorella would be the first to tell you that Sullivan is the more progressive thinker. Tortorella has said he's learned more from Sullivan in his career than Sullivan has learned from him. ... Sullivan was masterful in making adjustments over the course of the playoffs last spring, but Tortorella knows his tendencies. This matchup will be fascinating.
Prediction: This should be a tight series between two powerhouses, but the Blue Jackets are limping into the postseason, with a power play that has dried up. ... Columbus is a young team, meaning it has a major playoff experience disadvantage in this series, so give the slight edge to Pittsburgh. Penguins in 7.