The Pittsburgh Penguins had a chance to earn a six-point lead over the Columbus Blue Jackets in the race for an Eastern Conference wild-card spot. Instead, each team will wake up Sunday morning exactly where they began the weekend. The Penguins have just a two-point lead and Columbus is firmly in the playoff race after Columbus beat the Penguins 4-1 at Nationwide Arena, Saturday night.
The Penguins wasted a brilliant performance by goalie Matt Murray. He was worth the price of admission and kept the Penguins in the game with no less than five saves which should have been goals. The Penguins eight-game winning streak over Columbus and three-game winning streak was snapped.
Columbus winger Cam Atkinson was a force with a pair of goals (37, 38) including a shorthanded goal and the empty netter.
Columbus was a desperate team in the first period. They were aggressive and faster than the Penguins. After being shutout Thursday night, Columbus finally beat Penguins goalie Matt Murray several minutes into the first period.
After Penguins defenseman Justin Schultz pinched at the offensive blue line but was hit in the face with the puck and missed several minutes. The result of the play was a 2-on-1 for Columbus and Boone Jenner (12) had a free shot at Murray and didn’t miss.
Murray was otherwise spectacular in the first 20 minutes including consecutive acrobatic saves on Josh Anderson and Jenner.
“I wouldn’t say I was in the zone, I made some pretty bad reads, honestly, which is why I had to get desperate on some of those. I was pretty lucky,” Murray said. “Some of the back door plays I was sliding or already down and they passed it around me and I had to get desperate.”
But the Penguins and specifically Phil Kessel were again bitten by the shorthanded goal monster. Kessel faceplanted when he tripped over the defensive blue line and Cam Atkinson had a clear path towards Murray. Atkinson (37) whipped a wrister from the circle past Murray. It was Atkinson’s fourth shortie this season and the 14th shorthanded goal allowed.
Evgeni Malkin, Kessel and Zach Aston-Reese helped the Penguins halve the Columbus lead, six minutes into the second period. At the blue line, Malkin intercepted a sloppy Columbus clearing attempt by defenseman Seth Jones. Malkin served the puck to Aston-Reese (8) just beyond the crease and the Penguin made a game of it.
After being dominated in the first period, the Penguins were able to stabilize in the second period, though Columbus continued to force Murray to make spectacular saves.
“They definitely came hard tonight. They threw a lot of pucks at the net and got a lot of chances. I just tried to weather the storm, I guess,” Murray shrugged.
The teams traded chances and momentum for the latter half of the second period and third. Columbus center Matt Duchene hit a post, as did Penguins winger Jake Guentzel. Columbus didn’t allow the Penguins much space, though the Penguins weren’t as stingy and allowed Columbus a few open shots off the rush. The early Columbus rush set the tone.
“We just didn’t handle it as well as we would have liked,” said head coach Mike Sullivan.
Oliver Bjorkstrand (14) converted what became a 2-on-0 in front of Murray with three minutes remaining to salt the game for Columbus.
Murray continued to bail out the Penguins out like an enabling parent. Murray allowed three goals on 32 shots but was easily the Penguins best player.
“I thought he was terrific. He made some 10 bell saves to keep us in the game,” Sullivan said.