Hard to believe we’ve been doing this for eight years. It’s always my favorite part of the season.

Here’s our cast of characters for this year:

Sean Leahy of Yahoo’s! Puck Daddy – Twitter: @Sean_Leahy

Ian Altenbaugh of Hockey’s Future – Twitter: @IanAltenbaugh

Ryan Wilson of Hockey Buzz – Twitter: @GunnerStaal

Nicholas of PSAMP – Twitter: @PSAMP

The Crew of The Pensblog – Twitter: @Pensblog

Nick Richter of PensNation – Twitter: @Pensnation_Nick

Jimmy Rixner of Pensburgh – Twitter: @Hooks_Orpik

Eric Majeski – Moderator of Lets Go Pens – Twitter: @LGP_Netwolf

Mike Colligan of The Hockey Writers – Twitter: @MikeColligan

Brian Metzer of Penguins Radio Network AND NEW INDUCTEE INTO THE PRO HOCKEY WRITERS ASSOCIATION! (Congrats!) – Twitter: @Brian_Metzer

Sean Conboy – Online Editor – Pittsburgh Magazine – Twitter: @SeanConPM

Alright, follow these folks on Twitter. Bookmark their sites. Enough with the introductions, lets get right down to it.

1. Let’s get this topic out of the way: It’s Marc-Andre Fleury versus Sergei Bobrovsky. In every pre-series article I’ve read, this is the match up that is getting the most attention. What do you make of Fleury, particularly as of late, and where does the goaltending advantage lie between these teams?

Leahy: As has been the case with the Penguins and Fleury for several years, it’s not what happens between October and April. We all know the Penguins and Fleury will be solid during the regular season, but the last few springs have brought reason for concern. Against Fleury is his recent past of meltdowns. But in favor of Fleury, in my opinion, is the fact that he has to know, with a year left on his contract, he needs to flourish otherwise his future in Pittsburgh will be in doubt. He has a penchant for bad goals, we know that, and while those have sunk him in the past, being able to show a short memory.

Bobrovsky is a guy who answered a Vezina Trophy-winning season with another solid campaign. Two years in a row he helped backstop down a stretch and this Blue Jackets team will be inspired to put behind their past failures embrace this new era of Columbus hockey.

I’d give Columbus an edge in goaltending in this series, but won’t be surprised if we see a different Fleury this time around.

Altenbaugh: Bobrovsky is 5-4-1 with a 3.05 GAA in his career versus the Penguins. Fleury is 6-1-1 with a 2.18 GAA and .931 save percentage. So, from a regular season perspective, it’s obvious Fleury gets the edge. However, looking at their post-season records, Fleury has had three post-seasons where he finished with a save percentage over .900. The 2008 and 2009 cup runs, and before that, the 2002-03 season with the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles. For as good as Fleury is, he is historically bad in the playoffs, and his recent body of post-season work does nothing to dispel that notion.

If there is solace for the Penguins, it would be the fact Bobrovsky has actually been worse in the post-season over his career than Fleury. He’s 0-2 in 7 playoff games, allowed 15 goals, has a 4.04 GAA, and an .848 save percentage. He has only 13 post-season appearances in his time in Europe as well, so his body of work is limited and below average.

Wilson: Marc-Andre Fleury has shown flashes of being terrific in recent weeks. Fleury earned the 1st star of the game against Colorado, Chicago, and Columbus recently, but the OT goal he let in against the Flyers is going to refresh a lot of people’s bad memories from the past few playoff seasons. Bobrovsky is reigning Vezina Trophy winner and thus the Blue Jackets hold the goaltending edge. However, Bobrovsky has to do way more to get his team in the W column than Fleury does. Average Fleury beats very good Bobrovsky in this series. Bob will have to be lights out.

PSAMP: MAF, and the rest of the team, have been pretty mediocre since the Olympic break and basically wrapping up the division long ago with a stellar first half of the season. And that isn’t so much a bad thing, letting the guys play through issues and injuries to other guys rather than cruising through March/April and being unprepared for struggles come playoffs. This is huge for MAF, as he’s routinely been that guy who hasn’t lost since February, then crumbles at the first hint of failure in the playoffs the past few years. Speaking directly, MAF is 3-0 against the Jackets this season, letting in one goal in each game. Bobrovsky has played just 23 minutes against the Pens in their regular season series opener. Shelled, and pulled. If we’re gonna directly compare, MAF has all of the advantages.

Pensblog: We’ll still take Fleury at the end of this one. While his playoff struggles have been documented, Bobrovsky hasn’t won anything in the playoffs. In the playoffs you go with the experience, and that is all Fleury.

Richter: Flower has been shaky as of late. His numbers are so average since the Olympic break, 8-8 with a .906 Save Percentage. But to Fleury’s credit, the Penguins have been a mess defensively since returning from the Olympics. I still think Fleury is the better goaltender of the two, but this is a put-up-or-shut-up series for Marc-Andre Fleury.

Rixner: I know this in unpopular, but I’m not buying the Bobrovsky hype. In his career he’s beaten the Pens 5 out of 10 times, with a 3.04 GAA and a .902 save percentage. Bobrovsky is a talented and athletic goalie, but I probably think less of him than most who seem to think he has the Penguins number. The Pens only need Fleury to be average, they’ve showed that even since 2010 with Fleury’s cumulative .880 playoff save percentage, they’ve still dragged him to a 14-16 record. All they need is MAF to be decent and the goal scoring will take care of the rest, especially against a team without an impressive defense.

Majeski: Tough to say. Bobrovsky hasn’t been in the playoffs much and Fleury hasn’t been good in them recently. Maybe a slight edge to Bob as he’s been a little better in the regular season recently, what with that Vezina and all. I’m not worried about Fleury to start though; outside of Crosby, he may have been the Pens’ MVP.

Colligan: I think Fleury has really improved the past two seasons. Last season — and I mean regular season — he became much more efficient with his movement in the crease. When things unraveled in the playoffs though, he lost his patience and tried attacking the puck instead of simply letting it come to him. This season he’s really improved his ability to track long shots through traffic. Bobrovsky will obviously be the key to Columbus’ playoff success. He’ll need to steal the series. When he was with Philadelphia, the Penguins used to target shots at his feet and try to create juicy rebounds. I think he’s addressed that weakness now with a few years under his belt.

Metzer: You can’t talk Penguins and the Stanley Cup Playoffs with anyone without hearing the name Marc-Andre Fleury and that has a whole lot to do with his showings over the past three seasons. Fleury has collected just seven wins over the past three postseasons, which has caused many to forget his back-to-back trips to the Stanley Cup Final, including one in which he was instrumental in helping the Pens hoist the Cup. While Sergei Bobrovsky is the reigning Vezina Trophy winner, he has had his moments of inconsistency this season and hasn’t logged near the playoff miles that Fleury has. It will be an intriguing battle of two very good goaltenders, but until I see otherwise I am leaning towards Marc-Andre Fleury. The Penguins goaltender might have dipped a bit lately, but the team was incomplete in front of him, specifically the blue line. He will have a complete lineup in front of him Wednesday night and will (hopefully) look more like the guy who rolled up 39 wins and was near unbeatable on Consol Energy Center ice most of this season.

Conboy: This is a story of Pedigree vs. Perseverance. In 2010, Marc Andre Fleury was a no. 1 pick who had already fulfilled his assumed destiny of winning a Stanley Cup. Bobrovsky was toiling away in a minor outpost called Novokuznetsk in the minor leagues of Russian hockey after going undrafted. In the four years since then, the narrative of their respective careers has been defined by expectations. Everyone’s worried about Fleury’s pysche. But remember: Fleury has won 8 career playoff series. Bobrovsky has won zero. I’ll take Fleury.

2. One thing Columbus doesn’t get enough credit for is their physical approach to the game. Can the Penguins handle this or will their discipline issues come back to haunt them here?

Leahy: I don’t think the Penguins have shown consistently enough that they can avoid allowing team’s under their skin. If the Blue Jackets want an easy way to try and grab a few additional power plays, they’ll annoy the hell out of the Penguins, specifically a guy like James Neal. Nick Foligno’s done a pretty good job of being a thorn in the Penguins’ side in the past.

Altenbaugh: I think the Penguins discipline issues haunt them more with teams who they have longer histories with, like the Flyers and Bruins, not necessarily physical play. They’ve done fairly well against other physical teams like the Blues or Kings, and managed to maintain composure. That said, the Blue Jackets were one of the heaviest teams in the league to start the season, the Penguins one of the lightest, so there will be a size mismatch that could work against the Penguins.

Wilson: If the Penguins demonstrate an inability to stay composed they have no championship potential. They might get by the Jackets but they stand little chance to make it through the Rangers or Flyer and certainly not Boston. Penguins showed some signs of restraint against Philadelphia this past weekend until very end of the game. They need to show restraint for the entire game. They need to remember that their fascination with “grit” lost them the 2012 series with Philadelphia and the 2013 series against Boston. Focus on skill.

PSAMP: This is maybe the part of the game that bothers me the most. You see how the Pens tried to counter Boston’s physical play with their own wild brand of hitting last ECF, and how this team wasn’t ready to hit and stay on offense at the same time. And that’s with not wanting to mention that series at all, but it must be brought up. If these Pens can focus on the skill on-ice rather than matching Columbus’ ability to throw their bodies around, they’ll be fine. They’ve just never been one that I can trust when the game gets to this point. Let Tanner Glass hit someone, but the top six must focus on themselves first.

Pensblog: This is a great point. Columbus doesn’t have the fire power the Penguins have, but they may have a better bottom six. The name Boone Jenner will echo through time, and in Jesse’s head, if the Jackets pull off the unthinkable, and beat the Pens

(Low blow, guys!)

Richter: The Blue Jackets are very underrated when it comes to their physical approach. They tied the LA Kings for the most hits in the NHL this season. However, I think they’re the perfect team for the Penguins to work out those discipline kinks against. The Pens should be able to play a hard-nosed game against the Blue Jackets without the emotional investment that we’ve seen against other physical teams like the Bruins and Flyers.

Rixner: For this series, I like the Penguins odds. Brandon Dubinsky will be in the middle of things, but Columbus doesn’t has quite the “characters” that teams like Philly and Boston have that get under the Pens skin. Health is key- Pittsburgh’s defense, in theory, they should be moving the puck a lot quicker and better, which would lead to less chances for guys like Boone Jenner, Matt Calvert and Artem Anisimov to forecheck and more time they’ll have to be skating back towards their own net chasing the Penguins.

Majeski: I don’t see that as an issue. It didn’t seem to bother the Pens in their regular season meetings, and the Pens don’t seem to be a team that goes away when things get a little rough. Plus, if Columbus is throwing a lot of hits, they don’t have the puck much. Tough to score without that. The only potential for it to become an issue is if the Pens get distracted by it and try to out-tough Columbus as they often do versus Philly.

Colligan: Totally agree. I don’t see it being an issue for the Penguins though. Columbus doesn’t have enough experience to come into this series with a ton of swagger. But when these teams face off next year (and the following 4 years due to the new divisional playoffs), we might see a different story play out.

Metzer: That is the million dollar question isn’t it? I think that they can keep their collective tempers in check, especially considering the fact that the Blue Jackets have not yet reached the point of making the Penguins’ blood boil. They do have a few guys like Brandon Dubinsky, Jared Boll and Derek Mackenzie who can certainly find a way to do it over a seven game series though. Nick Foligno will not be in the lineup and he is someone that has long known how to get under the skin of Sidney Crosby. His not being there should help keep Crosby focused on playing between the whistles, let’s hope that Dan Bylsma and his staff are looking for additional ways to do that for Evgeni Malkin and James Neal.

Conboy: If Sidney Crosby were a prudent captain, he’d sneak into CONSOL an hour early tonight and spike James Neal’s Gatorade with Xanax. Neal is invaluable to the Penguins as a ruthless goal scorer, but he has become increasingly unhinged in recent months, and the coaching staff seems to be completely unable to control him. There’s playing with an “edge” and then there’s superfluous goonery. Gary Roberts, for all his WWF theatrics, seemed to truly get the other team off their game. If anything, Neal’s behavior seems to motivate the other team. The Penguins simply don’t seem believable in role of the heel. Especially Crosby.

3. What has to happen for the Blue Jackets for them to win this series?

Leahy: They get consistent secondary production. Guys like Ryan Johansen, Artem Anisimov and Cam Atkinson will get their points, but it’s the Folignos, Mark Letestus and Boone Jenners who will be the key in the Blue Jackets outscoring the Penguins in a seven-game series.

Altenbaugh: Evgeni Malkin not returning for the first couple games of the series would be a huge boost to the Blue Jackets. They are in the middle of the pack with goals for and against and could get blown away by a healthy Penguins lineup. We’ve all see the Penguins with and without Malkin. They are a more dynamic team offensively with him, even when he’s not playing to 100%. Even an unhealthy Malkin would provide more favorable matchups for the Penguins. As of now, if the Jackets can contain Crosby, they could win the series.

Wilson: The Blue Jackets need to outplay the Penguins bottom 6 forwards. Don’t give Dan Bylsma the opportunity to take the Crosby line out of their shutdown role. If the Penguins bottom 6 forwards can tread water and take on tougher matchups, that opens up the door for Bylsma to give Crosby more favorable matchups. Try and implement Flyers blueprint and hope Penguins take the bait. Keep Jack Johnson away from Crosby and Malkin. Bobrovsky needs to channel his inner Hasek.

PSAMP: A miracle. It just isn’t gonna happen. I just can’t look at a team that skates Mark Letestu for a reliable portion of a game and get excited about their potential. This is speaking from experience, guys.

Pensblog: It is all on Bobrovsky. We’ve seen goalies do this before, but he’ll literally have to make almost every save he can to keep the Jackets above water.

Richter: The Jackets don’t have a ton of playoff experience, the Pens have tons of it but don’t play like it often. I think it’s imperative for Columbus to steal game one in Pittsburgh and get in the Penguin’s head early on in the series if they have any chance to advance.

Rixner: Score early in Game 1. All the pressure will be cranked up on Fleury when those early goals go in, and it could tip the whole series. The Penguins absolutely kill teams when they can get out to a lead and play from in front. Pittsburgh is such a confidence driven team, and if Columbus wants to win, they need to shake that confidence. Put cracks in Fleury, create a goaltending controversy and they’re already halfway towards winning.

Majeski: Goaltending, either by Bobrovsky getting ridiculously hot or by Fleury proving his previous playoff struggles were nothing. Hopefully, the injury bug doesn’t come back to try and finish the Pens off. Short of those two possibilities, the Pens seemingly have an edge just about everywhere.

Colligan: I’m sure everyone will say it, but goaltending. This is a very feisty team. If they were 100% healthy, they’d have a chance of pulling the upset, but it’ll be tough without some key contributors.

Metzer: The Blue Jackets were dominated by the Penguins this season and have been since their inception, winning just four times in the all-time series. None of that matters in the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Blue Jackets need to stay out of the penalty box, get strong goaltending from Sergei Bobrovsky and secondary scoring. They are capable of playing a shutdown game and we all know that can frustrate the Penguins. If they can get the things I mentioned, while managing to ruffle the Penguins’ feathers a bit, they just might be able to pull off one of the biggest upsets in recent playoff history.

Conboy: A reboot of Sudden Death? An early Jeff Zatkoff appearance? Barring a calamity, I can’t quite visualize a post-series NBC montage of Blue Jackets center Ryan Johansen shutting down Sidney Crosby. The Penguins’ achillies heel is puck possession. The Blue Jackets don’t have the horses in the middle to bully the game.

4. A lot has been made of how the Penguins closed the season out. Are you heading into the playoffs confident in this team’s chances?

Leahy: I don’t see the Penguins getting out of the East this season, but they certainly have the talent to make a return trip to the Conference Final. Getting guys like Kris Letang and Evgeni Malin will help, but the depth of this roster is a factor in why I don’t believe they’ll win the Stanley Cup this year.

Altenbaugh: I am much more confident after seeing that win against Colorado last week than I was before. It’s hard to take much away from the last two games against the Sens and Flyers, but what I did take away was that Kris Letang,Paul Martin, and Beau Bennett are back, look good, and make this Penguins team much more dynamic from top to bottom.

Wilson: Penguins are a huge wild card in the playoffs this year. We haven’t seen what a healthy Penguins roster can do this year. They might be the healthiest they have been all year entering round 1 of the playoffs. Penguins were a top 5 possession team during the 1st half of the year before the Paul Martin/Kris Letang injury bug hit. If they return to being a quality possession team the Penguins have a high ceiling. I am more confident right now than I have been for months. Health is key.

PSAMP: Expanding thoughts on my first answer, the weak end of the season can only help the motivation of this team starting with Round 1. Anything can be made about the injuries but blah blah to that. Yes, we’ll get guys like Zhenya back. We’ve already seen the impacts of Bennett and Letang. But the “hey, we didn’t just steamroll through March and April” mindset that must be apparent in that room has to take on a whole new meaning. Yes, you won the division by a lot. But this is a condensed timeframe where you have to be at your best, immediately. There’s no feet-kicked-back-because-of-March like in years past. I expect a workmanlike performance. It’s up to the guys on ice to make that happen.

Pensblog: One series at a time is how we’ll play it. Because of the different playoff format, each series is going to be its own war. The Penguins have Crosby and Malkin ( hopefully), so they will always have a chance. But confidence is hard to have after what has transpired the last five playoffs.

Richter: Not as confident as I would like to be, but based off the past couple of seasons, that might be a good thing. For the Pens to struggle a little down the stretch, it could actually focus them.

Rixner: Maybe it’s delusion, but I am confident in the Pens chances, for this round at least. Kris Letang looks great, Evgeni Malkin is back and the Penguins are about as healthy as they could hope to be. Sidney Crosby is far and away the best player in the league and having that guy in your corner counts for something. Obviously, it’s not going to be a cake walk and this team isn’t deep enough to win pretty every night, but “winning ugly” was how the Pens got past Detroit in 2009 and maybe getting back to those roots will help.

Majeski: This team hasn’t had a ton to play for lately, so I think getting healthy was more important than their record. There’s always a danger in having to flip a switch come playoffs, but I’m not too concerned. Columbus could be a tough out if they aren’t careful, but I think they’ll serve as a good warm-up.

Colligan: I’ve always viewed this season a transition year for the Pens. They went all-in at the deadline last season (as they should have) and came up short. This season, a lower cap put a crunch on their ability to fill out the checking lines. I think we’ll see some significant changes in the offseason and that’ll open the door for a more balanced lineup. If you buy into the transition year idea and acknowledge the injury situation, this season has been a huge success. Are the Penguins in the Top 5 of the NHL? Nope. Is the Eastern Conference wide open? Yep. With luck, matchups, and timing playing such a big role in the playoffs, the Penguins are definitely capable of making a run.

Metzer: You can make a case that the Penguins have only been a better than average team since the Olympic break, but you need to remember that they were very incomplete. Kris Letang, Paul Martin, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal and others all missed games. We also have to consider that they haven’t truly played a meaningful game since December. Say what you want, but it is hard for a team to remain focused when they pretty much locked up their division months ago. The fact that they will be playing a meaningful game, they will be at nearly full health with a blue line that is intact for one of the few times this season speaks to the fact that we can’t really judge them on what we saw over the past few weeks. Pascal Dupuis aside, this is as close to the lineup that Ray Shero hoped to ice back in October that we have seen and while it still has its holes, it should be good enough to win some playoff games.

Conboy: No. I’ll give you six reasons why: Tanner Glass, Brian Gibbons, Craig Adams, Taylor Pyatt, Derek Engelland and Joe Vitale. Most (if not all) of these guys are going to play minutes. When the Penguins’ bottom two lines are on the ice, they have the puck about 25% of the time. That’s not good.

5. Who poses the biggest threat to the Penguins success on the Columbus roster?

Leahy: It’ll come down to Bobrovsky. He can shut down a team by himself and steal those close 1-0, 2-1 games. The Penguins will have to rely heavily on their top guns and if they go cold, they’re in trouble.

Altenbaugh: Ryan Johansen’s coming out party as an NHL star could happen at any point. RJ Umberger may raise his game against the team he grew up watching. If Fleury falters early in the playoffs, it could be a quick exit and an ugly post-season followed by a long and ugly off-season.

Wilson: Brandon Dubinsky. He has the ability to grind the Penguins gears and has been doing so since his days with the New York Rangers. If he can get Crosby, Malkin, Letang and Neal to become unglued, Columbus can take advantage. Somebody has to get Penguins distracted and unfocused for the Blue Jackets to have a chance in this series. I think Brandon Dubinsky is the Blue Jackets best chance at accomplishing that.

PSAMP: Bobrovsky. Like I said, MAF played in three of the five Pens wins against Columbus this season, winning all three and allowing just a goal in each. Bobrovsky started the first game these two played, giving up three goals in 23 minutes and getting yanked. So the Pens had the unique distinction of playing the backup goalie in all five matchups. Does that 5-0 regular season record against Columbus mean anything for Pittsburgh, then? Sure, MAF’s been stellar on that end, but what happens if the offense doesn’t immediately pepper Bobrovsky’s net? The Pens might have to get him yanked from Game 1 again. They can’t let him get comfortable.

Pensblog: Is anyone not picking Ryan Johansen? He is a monster. The Penguins will spend a good time worrying about him, so you have to think he is their biggest threat at this point.

Richter: Sergei Bobrovsky. It’s been tough over the past four years for the Penguins to beat a goalie who is in the zone. Bob won the Vezina Trophy just one season ago. He’s a solid and underrated goalie. If anybody poses a major threat to the Pens on the Blue Jackets, it’s Bob.

Rixner: Ryan Johansen. He’s the best player in the league that no one talks about. Unreal skill in his hands, he’s dangerous with the puck any time he touches it in the offensive zone. A lot of people attribute John Tavares’ coming out party to the playoff series last year, and Johansen is every bit as talented and should have as good of a series as Tavares did last year against the Pens. Columbus has a balanced attack and not too many scary players, Johansen is definitely the standout.

Majeski: Bobrovsky, if he gets hot. Skater-wise, how can it be anyone other than Ryan Johansen? That kid’s been a beast for them this year.

Colligan: Ryan Johansen. He has great instincts around the net and is very strong in his own end. At age 21, this guy already plays the game like Ryan Getzlaf and has the potential to take over an entire series.

Metzer: Sergei Bobrovsky is probably their most important player, but Brandon Dubinsky is a difference maker for them. While Ryan Johansen has exploded onto the scene and Boone Jenner has been great, it is Dubinsky who can tilt this series with his agitating, his scoring and ability to do a little bit of everything you need to win hockey games. He can win faceoffs, he is feisty and though he’s a little guy, he can put this team on his back help take them to the next level.

Conboy: Jack Johnson, who apparently is a good friend of Sidney Crosby but seems to piss him off like nobody else in the NHL. This makes sense. No one can make you have a meldown like a buddy. Once in high school, one of my good pals tried to choke out another friend with the chord of a Playstation 2 controller. It was over a game of Madden. For $5. Stakes are higher here, obviously.

6. How many games does this go and who wins?

Leahy: Pens in six.

I completely see this series going the same way it did a year ago against the New York Islanders. There will be moments where we think the Penguins have it in control and others where it appears the series has shifted in the Blue Jackets’ favor. In the end, it’s going to be the production of Crosby, Malkin, Neal that will help the Penguins survive and advance.

Altenbaugh: Penguins in five.

Wilson: I don’t believe that the severity of a 1st round exit is lost on the Penguins players. They know a loss to Columbus in round 1 will bring significant change to the organization. I think you’ll see an aggressive and disciplined Penguins squad overwhelm Columbus. For this reason I pick Penguins in 5.

PSAMP: 5 games. I’m trying to decide when I think the Jackets will win one. If they steal one in Pittsburgh, the Pens will win both in Columbus. Game 3 should be huge if the Pens hold serve.

Pensblog: Pens in five. Jackets aren’t ready yet.

Richter: Pens win in 5. I can see Bob stealing a game.

Rixner: Pens in 5. Pittsburgh has too much firepower for Columbus to slow down. The Pens should roll to a series win, as long as there is no major goaltending-induced speed bump.

Majeski: Pens in 5. Could take longer if the Pens are slow to get going and/or Fleury’s regular season doesn’t carry over.

Colligan: Pens sweep in 4, then they watch Philly/New York play 3 games in 4 nights in 2 cities to close out their series.


Metzer: Penguins in 5 —— not gonna be surprised if it goes 6 though.

Conboy: Penguins in 4.

Thanks again to the participants. Post your answers below!