Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Scott Harrington (54) plays the puck away from Pittsburgh Penguins center Nick Bonino (13) in the third period of the 4-1 win at the PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh on April 4, 2017. File photo by Archie Carpenter/UPI | License Photo
PITTSBURGH -- When the Pittsburgh Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets open their first-round Eastern Conference playoff series Wednesday at PPG Paints Arena, both clubs know what to expect.
The teams, a few hours' drive apart, have developed a rivalry the past handful of seasons and, as fellow members of the Metropolitan Division, have faced each other plenty.
"There's some mojo against them in this (locker) room," Blue Jackets winger and longtime Pittsburgh nemesis Scott Hartnell said Tuesday.
The defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins rely on speed and skill. Columbus has some of those qualities, but it also has physical play sewn into its identity.
Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby, who won the Conn Smythe Trophy last spring and Rocket Richard Trophy this season with 44 goals, is the personification of his team's speed and skill. He said the four games the teams played in the regular season -- each was 2-1-1 -- stand as a fair barometer for what to expect in the best-of-seven series.
Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Jack Johnson (7) checks Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby (87). File photo by Archie Carpenter/UPI
"They probably had a bit of a playoff feel to every single one of them," Crosby said. "Both teams play a fast game. They're a physical team. Just intense and emotional games."
Crosby has often been the targeted recipient of that physical play, especially from Blue Jackets center Brandon Dubinsky, who once was suspended by the NHL for a cross-check to the back of Crosby's neck.
Columbus coach John Tortorella doesn't want to mute that; he just doesn't want his players to stray outside the rules to the point where the potent Penguins get power play after power play.
"Our heartbeat is our physical play. We work off of that. That needs to be there," Tortorella said.
"That's not about running around and taking penalties. We're going to have to be very disciplined against this club. You can see the people they have. It's going to be a very important part of that fine line of being who we are, but also not sitting in the box."
On the flip side, Pittsburgh's aim is to stay collected and avoid retaliation penalties.
"After the whistle, we know they don't stop," Penguins center Evgeni Malkin said. "We know that. We need to be smart. If they attack our goalie, we need to answer. If they touch our defensemen, we need to answer. But (don't) take penalties. Be smart and play our game."
Both clubs should be bolstered by getting a key player back from a shoulder injury. Malkin and Blue Jackets rookie defenseman Zack Werenski are expected to play. Speedster winger Carl Hagelin could return to the Pittsburgh lineup during the series, coach Mike Sullivan said.
The Penguins, though, will be without top defenseman Kris Letang, who is out at least until fall training camp with a disc injury in his neck, and without one of their most physical forwards, veteran Chris Kunitz, who has a leg or foot injury.
While Pittsburgh rookie goaltender Matt Murray stepped in to calmly and sure-handedly backstop the Penguins to the Cup last year, Columbus has quite a stalwart in goal, Sergei Bobrovsky. He had the league's best goals-against average (.2.06) and save percentage (.931) and was second with 42 wins this season.
As familiar as the clubs are with each other and as similar as their success was this season -- Pittsburgh finished second in the Metro with 111 points and Columbus third with 108 -- one side knows a lot more about winning in the playoffs.
While Pittsburgh is the defending Cup winner and brought back its roster nearly intact, Columbus has won two playoff games in its history.
Those two wins, both in overtime, came when these same teams met in the opening round of the playoffs in 2014, with the Penguins winning in six games in a tough matchup.
"For the most part, I still consider us an underdog," Blue Jackets winger and leading scorer Cam Atkinson said. "We're still chasing, trying to prove people wrong. We should use that as motivation. We should feel no pressure. Just be ready to rock 'n roll and go have some fun."
The Penguins, who also won in 2009 to go along with two Cups in the early '90s, are trying to become the NHL's first repeat champion since Detroit in 1997 and '98.
"You need so many things to go right," Crosby said of capturing the Cup any year, much less twice in a row. "There's a lot of things you have to overcome."