PITTSBURGH - The Columbus Blue Jackets are new to the Eastern Conference, but Penguins coach Dan Bylsma recognizes a reflection when he sees it.
“Maybe there's some difference in our players, but not really in the structure,” Bylsma said Sunday before the regular-season finale against Ottawa at Consol Energy Center.
Bylsma's sixth postseason with the Penguins begins Wednesday night in Game 1 for a best-of-seven playoff series against Columbus. The Blue Jackets will open only their second postseason series and first since 2009.
They were in the Western Conference then, and their postseason lasted only four games. To make a longer go at it this time, the Blue Jackets will have to reverse a trend from the regular season during which they were winless in five games against the Penguins.
Third-season center Ryan Johansen, 21, led Columbus in goals (33) and points (63). He conceded that the Blue Jackets “at times” appeared in awe of the Penguins' star power and Cup-contender status.
“Yeah, maybe for a few periods we've fallen into that,” Johansen said. “A couple of times we've been close to a 60-minute game, and that's what excites us. We know we can play with these guys.”
Columbus plays like the Penguins, too.
Todd Richards, the Blue Jackets coach, held the post with the Penguins' AHL affiliate from 2006-08. He, not Bylsma, would have replaced former Penguins coach Michel Therrien in February 2009, but Richards accepted an NHL assistant job with San Jose prior to the season.
Bylsma and Richards remain close friends and ideological brethren. The latter more than the former is the reason Richards was part of Bylsma's Team USA coaching staff at the Winter Olympics in February.
Bylsma described the differences between the Penguins' and Blue Jackets' systems as “pretty small.”
“Their neutral-zone defense is a little bit different,” Bylsma said. “They have some offensive-zone tendencies that are a little bit different than us. But from a forecheck, attack and transition standpoint, they're very similar to our team — at least in terms of structure.”
Columbus' best player is goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, who followed a Vezina Trophy as top goalie last season with 32 victories, a .923 save percentage and 2.31 goals-against average. He played only once against the Penguins and for only 23 minutes. He stopped 10 of 13 shots in a loss Nov. 1 at Consol Energy Center.
Bobrovsky, Johansen and defenseman James Wisniewski — the latter with 28 power-play points, third among defensemen — make Columbus a dangerous opponent, Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik said. He also noted the Blue Jackets' 14-8-2 post-Olympics run.
The Penguins finished the season with an NHL-worst 532 man-games lost to injury. The Blue Jackets were fifth highest at 297, and winger Nathan Horton (abdomen) will miss Round 1.
Orpik predicted “a very confident” group of Blue Jackets, and Wisniewski disputed that the Penguins could have a mental edge in the series.
“I wouldn't say it is awe,” Wisniewski said. “Maybe we've given them too much respect and backed off too much because we worry about them being a high-powered offense when we should have smothered them.”
Boston smothered the Penguins in the East final last season, limiting them to two goals in a four-game sweep. Orpik reminded that the Penguins had swept three regular-season games from the Bruins in 2013.
“I wouldn't put a lot of value into what our record was against (Columbus),” Orpik said. “Our record was pretty good against Boston, and that didn't turn out too well.
“This will be very competitive.”
(Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.)