The Pittsburgh Penguins weathered the opening storm, survived a tying goal with under five minutes remaining, and ultimately triumphed behind enemy lines for a 5-4 overtime win and 3-0 series lead.
The Columbus Blue Jackets scored three goals in just over six minutes in the first period. The Nationwide Arena was shaking, TV cameras bounced. The Columbus fans roared as they stood for the first half of the first period.
The energy in the building and on the benches became a runaway freight train, as uncontrollable as it was unstoppable. The Penguins managed to limit the early damage, and controlled play for much of the second period with goals from Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust.
Jake Guentzel notched hat-trick which included the game winner, as the Sid and the Kids line was again the Penguins best. Far and away.
Both coaches praised their teams. Mike Sullivan called the game his team’s most complete game in over a month. Really?
The Penguins defense and goalie yielded 4 goals. And how they yielded those chances and goals poked holes in that claim. Ian Cole was soundly beaten to the net by Cam Atkinson just 11 seconds into the game for the Blue Jackets first goal. Sidney Crosby and Conor Sheary handed the puck and short breakaway to Atkinson for the Blue Jackets second goal.
Columbus’ third goal was a power play tally. The Penguins penalty killers allowed point man Zach Werenski to take an open shot from the high circle. Werenski picked the top corner on Fleury like a sharp sniper would.
No, it really wasn’t the Penguins best game in over a month. Throughout the game, the Penguins struggled to secure their endzone. Miscommunications, giveaways, beaten to pucks when Columbus dumped the puck into the offensive zone.
The Penguins defense must get stronger in their own zone. Trevor Daley and Olli Maatta appear to be doing so. Brian Dumoulin not so much. Justin Schultz has struggled when under pressure in his own zone.
The Penguins instead asked goalie Marc-Andre Fleury to make a string of difficult saves. Fleury made some, not all. Fleury left a few rebounds in the slot, which eluded his players, and instead found the sticks of uncovered Blue Jackets.
The Penguins defense is still in a gelling phase. As they gel, the play should improve. Right now, they would mightily struggle under pressure from a team more prepared for the moment, such as the Washington Capitals.
The Penguins best defense was offense. By taking the puck and not sharing for long stretches, the Penguins protected their defense.
Sullivan is able to praise his team because they came back to win. The defense, which too often scrambled, left opponents uncovered or failed to control puck, does not grade well.
Grit: Miles and Miles of Heart
What makes the Penguins effective is a ruthless, unwavering commitment to winning. No matter the situation, the Penguins keeping working. Resilience.
Fleury made a couple great saves on Mike Foligno, despite trailing by a couple goals (2-0, then 3-1). If Fleury allowed another goal, the game would likely have been out of reach.
First, the Penguins drew the Blue Jackets into a skating game. The Blue Jackets were protecting their zone; all five players crashed below the dots. However, the Blue Jackets could not maintain discipline and engaged in stretches of breathless hockey, when the teams traded chances.
When the Penguins pulled the Blue Jackets from the bunker, they had them. The Penguins talent is made for that type of game. The Blue Jackets deep, heavy roster…is not.
It would have been easy to surrender in the first period. The energy of the game was a Columbus tidal wave. The pre-Mike Sullivan Penguins would have packed the bags and tried another day, but not these Penguins.
Marc-Andre Fleury made big saves and gave the Penguins a chance to win. As I’ve written several times recently, goaltending is a six player position. In the first period, Fleury was again. The forwards were not playing a deep game. Perhaps the Penguins were looking for knockout punches or Columbus was just too much.
If you insist on taking a side, Fleury or Murray, your emotions will lead you to one side or the other. But no “side” exists. The Penguins yielded glorious chances and were not in position to clean rebounds. Fleury could have done more. So too could his team. Conclusion
Game 4 will not be easy, either. If Zach Werenski is unable to go, the Penguins will have a much easier time. Werenski showed extraordinary courage playing with a face shield to protect his rapidly swelling eye and cheek.
“Balls as big as the building,” is how John Tortorella described his defenseman. That seems fair. If you want some laughs–check that tweet on my Twitter feed. It went semi-viral and I got some really clever responses (i.e.–“That would be a disadvantage playing against Brad Marchand“)
The Penguins are teaching Columbus a lesson. The experienced winners are schooling the young upstarts. It is a lesson the Blue Jackets will want to repay, next season. For now, the Penguins are set to roll into the second round. Rested, and maybe even healthy.