Round 1, Game 1: Penguins vs. Blue Jackets
Spotlight: Sidney Crosby vs. Brandon Dubinsky
Penguins Coach Dan Bylsma has been questioned about his abilities to make in-game adjustments, when needed, but with the line-up and general match-ups Pittsburgh has, the Penguins have showed they are more apt to try to flex their muscles than to tap-dance their way past the Blue Jackets.
The Penguins feel they are a stronger, faster, and more skilled version of everything the Blue Jackets have to offer, so there is certainly no flaw in that strategy. Similar to the Pens-Islanders series last year, the better team usually pulls away in a mismatch. Although you would be hard-pressed to find anyone to the west of Pittsburgh who believes Columbus is over-matched.
The showdown between Sidney Crosby – Brandon Dubinsky will look to run a similar pattern, at least in the eyes of the Penguins and their coaching staff. It will be a key match-up in the series, featuring plenty of finesse and grit throughout. But as Crosby has shown in the past against the Jackets — including a history against Dubinsky himself — he cannot be held at bay for long.
The fact that he has not scored a goal in his past 6 playoff games leads the Pittsburgh faithful to believe Crosby is due for a string of goals before long. But it will be Dubinsky’s job to drag on the drought instead.
The biggest aid Crosby picked up for Game 1 was the return of Evgeni Malkin to the line-up. That would prevent Columbus from focusing James Wisniewski and/or Jack Johnson solely on Crosby’s line. But there was no question that the Blue Jackets would stay intent on getting Dubinsky, a renowned Penguin-pest, out on the ice against Crosby as much as possible.
In 37 career games against Pittsburgh, Dubinsky has 8 goals and 21 points. That’s significantly better than his career pace and the third-highest total against all opponents. Additionally, Dubinsky has 55 hits and 47 PIMs against the Penguins. Those are all solid numbers, particularly when considering that Dubinsky has spent 6 of his 8 seasons with the Rangers, a team the Penguins consistently beat during that span. During that time, Crosby and Dubinsky built up a bitter rivalry, including a February 2010 intermission interview in which Dubinsky called Crosby “such a little baby.”
In turn, Crosby is also ahead of his career averages when facing Columbus, putting up 1.55 points per game in 11 contests. Crosby only picked up more points this season against the Lightning (10) and Islanders (8) than his 7 points against the Blue Jackets, who were a divisional foe for the first time.
Crosby has also put up some of the best numbers of his career against Dubinsky’s former club, the New York Rangers. He consistently got the best of Dubinsky in those games, having only a better plus/minus rating against the Islanders in his career. Crosby also found ways to agitate Dubinsky during that time, beyond just the imposing offensive numbers.
As Game 1 unfolded, the expected match-up of the two centers played true from the drop of the puck. Columbus put Dubinsky in their starting line-up, so Bylsma responded with Malkin’s line. Dubinsky quickly retreated to the bench after the opening face-off, and interestingly, was the only player on the ice to do so.
That pattern would continue, as Columbus coach Todd Richards spent more of his focus on the Dubinsky-Crosby match-up than on matching Dubinsky’s full line of Cam Atkinson and Matt Calvert against Crosby. That pattern became so embedded into Columbus’s approach that Dubinsky saw over 11.5 minutes worth of Crosby’s total ice time (19:39) while skating with Atkinson for less than 7.5 minutes.
When Crosby came over the boards for his first shift of the game, Dubinsky was soon to follow. And that trend also continued early on, as Crosby only had 1 shift in the opening period where he did not face Dubinsky.
Dubinsky earned the edge in the period, picking up an assist on the game’s first goal while Crosby fell to minus-1. Dubinsky showed strong playmaking abilities on the goal, deftly warding off a backcheck from Crosby to set up Jack Johnson.
Bylsma made some clear adjustments for the second period, including trying to work Crosby away from Dubinsky. That involved starting Crosby for the period when Dubinsky was not on the ice and using the quick string of goals at the start of the period to stagger Crosby’s shifts.
Those maneuvers worked well, as Dubinsky only saw Crosby twice in the first half of the period. One of those was a power-play situation for Pittsburgh, where Crosby’s lone point of the night came shortly after Dubinsky was back on the bench.
From the game’s mid-point on, Bylsma seemed more intent on keeping Crosby away from Wisniewski instead of Dubinsky, which was executed well by the Pittsburgh coaching staff. That left Crosby facing Dubinsky on 6 of his 8 third-period shifts, with one of the two deviations merely being shorthanded work by Crosby.
The biggest moment of the match-up in Game 1, of course, was Dubinsky’s apparent slewfoot on Crosby. Dubinsky got a few other shots in against Crosby, as well. None of these acts were penalized, though the slewfoot will draw plenty of media attention and interview discussion in the two-plus days leading up to the start of Game 2.
Lost in the matter was an incident in November 2010 when Crosby threw an apparent slew foot of his own on Ryan Callahan of the Rangers, to which Dubinsky cited as “a dirty play.” Crosby’s response to the matter at the time included saying, “I think [Dubinsky] has done his fair share of things out there that are questionable. I guess he’s talking again. I’m not surprised. It’s a battle.”
In all, the match-up was largely a statistical wash between the two players, which is what Columbus would prefer to see throughout the series. Both players picked up an assist in the game, while Crosby held a 8-4 edge in head-to-head face-offs.
Crosby was limited to just 2 shots on goal, and only 1 of those happened with Dubinsky on the ice. Crosby was also a minus-2, though he was on the ice for a Pittsburgh PPG. Dubinsky did not generate a shot but finished +1. Dubinsky’s biggest contribution was his game-high of 9 hits, though just 1 of those was against Crosby.
These players are bound to see plenty more of each other in Game 2, and once the series shifts back to Columbus, the last-change advantage for Richards should allow him to pit Dubinsky against Crosby even more often, as well as add further support from Wisniewski.
Crosby is used to such match-ups in his career, particularly in the playoffs. His supporting cast — albeit with a revolving door of wingers opposite Chris Kunitz — may also prevent the Blue Jackets from keeping Crosby nullified for long periods of time since Columbus does not have many strong defensive forwards at its disposal. That simply puts more responsibility on Dubinsky to effectively fulfill his assignment.
The spotlight will remain on the clash between these two players, as any small edge gained by one could pay large dividends to their team’s chances of advancing.
It certainly is a battle, especially in the NHL post-season.