Is the reverse sweep even possible? Who needs to step up to make it happen? And can Sergei Bobrovsky return to Vezina form?
Our own Rob Mixer, Jeff Svoboda, Sam Blazer and Nick Vogel tackle these questions and more ahead of Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals between the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Aside from the result, what encouraged you most about Game 4 that has you excited about Game 5?
Rob Mixer: I really liked how the Blue Jackets seemed to exorcise some demons from earlier in the series. It’s so easy to forget how young this team is and how many players haven’t experienced anything like this yet in their careers. Everything is new, and as such, everything feels magnified for them. They were challenged by the Penguins in Game 4, and the game could’ve tilted the other way late in the second period, but the Blue Jackets came back with a series of quality shifts early in the third period that felt like difference-makers.
Nick Vogel: The most encouraging part of Game 4 has got to be the play of the Josh Anderson, William Karlsson, and Matt Calvert line. It looks as if that line can handle going against Sidney Crosby; Crosby ended the night with no points and was a -2. That line was not only affective on the defensive side, but also found a way to contribute offensively with their two goals. I am looking forward to seeing how that line plays in Pittsburgh in another must win scenario.
Sam Blazer: This may be a lame response, but the fact that they were actually able to pull off the win and work out some issues was encouraging. The Blue Jackets could have just rolled over and let the Penguins sweep them. That didn’t happen and it says a lot about the team. If they take the one-game-at-a-time mantra seriously, the Jackets have a real chance to make this into a series.
Jeff Svoboda: I could go with anything here really, but I'm gonna say it's that the Blue Jackets finally played Jackets Hockey (capital letters required) in Game 4. As I watched in Nationwide Arena, at one point I looked up and thought to myself, "This feels like a regular-season game" in that Columbus played with the confidence and swagger it had not just in its 16-game win streak but most of the campaign. I touched on this a bit in my Five Things piece, but for the first time, Columbus really looked comfortable in the game from start to finish. As John Tortorella said, they had the puck more, but to me, it looked like they didn't panic when they lost it. Columbus simply just played its game. If that keeps happening, the Jackets will have a chance here.
Who are you looking to for a big performance tonight?
SB: Alexander Wennberg has been relatively quiet this series, at least compared to what he did in the regular season. He was a bonafide number one center, but he hasn't shown the same flair during this series. He doesn’t shoot the puck often, but it would be huge for this team to get a goal out of him in Game 5.
NV: Brandon Saad is my choice for the next Blue Jacket to break through. Although he had two assists in Game 4, he has been underwhelming in the series thus far. Now many may disagree with this considering he has 3 points in 4 games played, however I believe Saad has another gear and we will see it in Game 5. The Blue Jackets need Saad to use his speed to create chances in the offensive zone, and he needs to be playing well to draw the tougher assignments and give players like Oliver Bjorkstrand favorable matchups.
JS: I'm gonna say Sergei Bobrovsky. I think he has a big game in him, and with Pittsburgh's cadre of stars surely not wanting to cross the border back into Ohio, this might have to be it. He made progress in Game 4, I thought, and had the kind of big save in the final 10 minutes that brings confidence for a goaltender, especially one who knows he's under a microscope like Bobrovsky. Things obviously weren't perfect – the second goal could have been a killer, as it looked like Bobrovsky expected a deflection that never came on a sharp-angle shot from the right wall -- but I think he was closer to where he needs to be. Could that be enough to right him for Game 5?
RM: Seth Jones is my guy in Game 5. He’s been so close all series long and had a handful of great self-started chances the other night. He is one of the most exciting players to watch on this team, and after some of the plays he’s made in this series, it’s almost as great to watch him in his own zone as in the offensive zone. With Zach Werenski out, we’re going to see a lot of Jones on the power play and in the 25-plus minute range overall. It feels like it’s his time to break out.
What are your thoughts on John Tortorella's lineup changes?
JS: There's little doubt Torts pressed the right buttons in Game 4, though some will argue what took so long. It's easy to argue Markus Nutivaara should have been in the lineup all the series given the statuses of Scott Harrington (healthy scratch many nights) and Gabriel Carlsson (in Europe) most of the season, but Nutivaara struggled late in the year in spot duty. He showed he might be the right type of guy to play the Penguins, though, with a get it up and get it going approach. Kyle Quincey is what he is, but he played his game as well as could be expected in Game 4, though Pittsburgh will try to expose him going forward. And the return of Matt Calvert really seemed to spark the line with William Karlsson and Josh Anderson, which was responsible for a trio of goals. The moves clearly worked for one game, but whether they will for the entire series remains to be seen, especially defensively.
RM: I think Lukas Sedlak’s availability forced his hand with Scott Hartnell a little bit, but Hartnell had been ineffective before being scratched, so that wasn’t too big of a surprise. I was patiently waiting for Markus Nutivaara to get a chance, and he didn’t disappoint. Overall, I liked the changes and felt the incoming players provided a needed burst of energy in a game that they obviously needed to have.
NV: I was happy to see Sonny Milano out of the lineup and Lukas Sedlak draw in. Sedlak played very well and his style of play is made for the playoffs. Kyle Quincey played a very physical game and also caught my eye. Something that shocked me however was that Markus Nutivaara, while scoring a goal and an assist, only received 9:37 time on ice. For his first ever playoff game he played extremely well, and it would not surprise me to see his minutes increase in Game 5.
SB: They ended up working out in Game 4, I still worry about Quincey in the line up and how the Penguins can take advantage of his play. Hopefully he gets moved down to the third pairing and Nutivaara gets an opportunity to be a Werenski fill in next to Seth Jones. I could nit pick his forward usage but overall in that department it has been negligible. The only player that deserves a heaping of more ice time is Oliver Bjorkstrand, who has played well in the offensive zone and is close to breaking through.
Pick one: improbable, impossible or plausible. And why?
RM: At this point, you’d have to think it’s impossible. After going down 0-2, the road ahead was winning four of the next five to advance with two of those coming at PPG Paints Arena. Now it’s a “win out or bow out” scenario for the Blue Jackets, who have a non-existent margin for error. Winning Game 4 was a reward for playing a strong game, but they could change my mind if they manage to win Game 5.
JS: Nothing is impossible until the final zeroes are on the clock, so I'm gonna throw that one out right away. Can something be both improbable yet plausible? OK, I'm cheating here, so I'll just stick with improbable. There's a reason only a handful of teams in sports, not just hockey, have come back from 3-0 deficits to win series. It's just hard to do, and even if Columbus plays its heart out tonight in Pittsburgh, there's no guarantee the bounces won't go against them and they won't come home empty-handed. Even though the Blue Jackets seem to have figured a few things out, this is the defending Stanley Cup champions and a team that has shown a consistent ability to make something out of nothing throughout the series. The Jackets remain a tremendous underdog.
SB: The Blue Jackets winning this series is plausible. It was plausible from Game 1 of this series and the Jackets have a chance to make a mark in Game 5. Sure, the odds are against them but why play the game if you’re just going to be resigned to mediocrity? The Penguins have the advantage in this series, no doubt about it, but this Blue Jackets team just feels special to me.
NV: The Blue Jackets winning this series is improbable. The Penguins are a very hard team to beat at home, not to mention it is very hard to beat a team four times in a series, let alone consecutively. Tomorrow might be the most important game in Blue Jackets franchise history. If the Jackets can win Game 5, I like them playing in front of the fans at N.W.A. If they can get to Game 6, I think the fans push them to win and force a Game 7. Anything can happen in a Game 7.
Do you expect Bob to return to Vezina form in this series? Why or why not?
SB: We have yet to see a good game out of Bobrovsky in this series. He needs to steal one to push the Penguins. He seems to pull out those games every once in a while. There is no time like the present and seeing Bobrovsky return to his normal self would be a welcome addition. It shouldn’t be an unexpected sight.
NV: I do not expect Sergei Bobrovsky to put up the same stellar regular season numbers in the playoffs. It's a different game, a different atmosphere, and a different amount of pressure. If Bobrovsky does find a way to get back to Vezina form, he could steal a game, and that's exactly what Columbus needs going into Game 5. Hopefully he raises his level of play, because an .891 save percentage and a 3.61 goals against average simply will not cut it against the Penguins.
RM: Even if he does, it’s a little too late, isn’t it? His play has been marred by inconsistency in this series and as a result, the Blue Jackets have been forced to score four and five goals per game to have a chance. That’s far from an ideal situation and it may well end up being the reason why the Blue Jackets again fail to advance out of the first round.