It was a 60-minute first-round playoff peek. The Penguins schooled the inexperienced and expiring Columbus Blue Jackets 4-1, Tuesday at PPG Paints Arena. The veteran Penguins absorbed 49 hits to make plays, converted scoring chances and controlled territory. The Penguins answered important questions about their level of play, compared to their division rival Columbus, but renewed questions if the Penguins could withstand the Blue Jackets heavy physical play.
It was the Penguins bottom six forwards who were the heroes and the victims, Tuesday.
Tom Kuhnhackl, who played on the third line with Matt Cullen, set up the game-winning goal midway through the second period. Kuhnhackl’s defensive puck pressure created a takeaway in the Penguins zone. Kuhnhackl raced past the Blue Jackets defense for a two-on-one and laid a saucer pass on Patric Hornqvist’s stick. Hornqvist finished the grinder’s hard work.
However, four Penguins forwards, all from the bottom six, also succumbed to injury. Three of those forwards left the game directly due to the Blue Jackets physical play. Bryan Rust, Scott Wilson, and Cullen were hurt by body checks. Kuhnhackl left the ice after using his body to block a slapshot in the third period.
Wilson returned for 2 shifts late in the third period after being hit by Blue Jackets defenseman David Savard behind the Blue Jackets net midway through the same period. Kuhnhackl returned for one late shift, also.
That Kuhnhackl used his body to block a heavy slapshot, while leading 4-1 midway through the final period, was both admirable and unnecessary. (If the Penguins feel a great need to protect their goalie, that may be a new conversation worth having.)
Kuhnhackl didn’t leave the bench but was clearly in pain for an extended time. He sat crouched on the bench, with his head down, occasionally straining upward.
Cullen and Rust did not return to the game after being hit in the head area in the second period.
On the ice, the Penguins elevated their game. Speed. Grit. Resilience. Matt Murray reverted to playoff form. Murray absorbed first shots, avoided giving juicy rebounds, and made timely saves.
Per the Pittsburgh Penguins, Mike Sullivan said the Penguins are rounding into form.
“I like the way we’re tracking. We’re starting to really establish the playoff mindset…” said Sullivan. “It’s puck battles. It’s wall play. It’s willingness to get inside the dots and go to the net…”
Overall, the Blue Jackets looked tired. They were not the same team which challenged the Penguins, and beat the Penguins, this season. Or the same team which earned 106 points this season. They lacked the same spark and intensity and have lost four straight; the last two to division rivals Washington Capitals and Penguins.
The scoresheet stats were misleading. Columbus outshot the Penguins 39-27, and outhit them 49-36. The Penguins were pleased with the quality of their shots and hits and worried less about the quantity of their opponent.
And through two periods, Penguins fans were probably feeling like this:
— Penguins Jesus (@PenguinsJesus) April 5, 2017
…Until the Penguins potentially catastrophic injury situation got worse. For two periods, the foreshadowing of the upcoming playoff series seemed clear: The Penguins are better. Columbus is worn down. However, Columbus’ ability and desire to maintain a pounding physical presence, despite trailing by four goals, claimed at least two more Penguins and lessened the talent gap.
Columbus, in its current state, cannot beat the Penguins expected playoff roster. The Penguins are and will be the better team when the playoffs begin next week. That they will be able to finish the seven-game series as the better team now seems in doubt. The regular season has been a war of attrition for the Penguins. They can ill afford another war of attrition with Columbus.
So, after a 60-minute playoff preview, which team will win? The Penguins…if any players are left standing.