The Pittsburgh Penguins have tweaked their approach in hopes of taking some of the pressure off goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.
While Fleury appreciates his teammates’ effort to play a little more responsibly on defense, he doesn’t mind showing he can still handle himself when things get busy in front of him.
Fleury stopped a season-high 37 shots Friday night in a 4-2 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets, earning his NHL-high 10th victory by shutting down the Blue Jackets early and buying Pittsburgh’s offense enough time to chase reigning Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky.
"We gave them way too many chances to play in our end," Pittsburgh center Brandon Sutter said. "You’ve got to look at Flower and how he played. He did a great job for us."
The Blue Jackets certainly weren’t arguing. After Chris Kunitz’s seventh goal of the season gave the Penguins the lead 7:01 into the game, Fleury made it stand up by keeping Columbus at bay. He made a series of sprawling saves on a Blue Jackets’ power play near the end of the first period, including a point-black stop on Ryan Johansen in which he slid all the way across the crease to get in front of a rebound.
"It was a big (penalty kill) for us," Fleury said. "You want to keep it 1-0 there and not give them a chance to come back."
Pittsburgh responded by taking control early in the second period. Sutter and Kris Letang scored 1:51 apart to give the Penguins a 3-0 lead and send Bobrovsky to the bench after allowing three goals on 13 shots in just 23 minutes.
"The start of (the second) periods haven’t been our best," Johansen said. "We’ve got to find ways to win 60-minute games."
That’s hardly a problem at the moment for Pittsburgh, which improved to 10-4 and leads the newly formed Metropolitan division by eight points not even a month into the season. Jason Megna scored his second NHL goal for the Penguins, and Sidney Crosby recorded an assist to push his point total to an NHL-leading 22.
Johansen and Derek MacKenzie scored for Columbus, but the Blue Jackets couldn’t match Pittsburgh’s firepower or goaltending.
Bobrovsky entered the game 5-1-1 in his last seven games against the Penguins, all while playing for Philadelphia. He struggled from the opening faceoff, never looking comfortable in a building in which he has been dominant.
The meeting was the first between the clubs as division rivals. Columbus switched from the Western Conference to the Metropolitan in the East as part of realignment, and the quickly improving Blue Jackets are hoping to create a rivalry based on more than geography.
Not quite yet.
Though Columbus is the closest NHL city to Pittsburgh, the gulf remains significant even if it didn’t look that way in the opening minutes. Columbus controlled most of the first period, sending 15 shots at Fleury. It was one of the rare times the Penguins have been on their heels at home.
It didn’t last.
Pittsburgh gathered itself during the first intermission and then took over. Sutter, who had a 17-game goal drought end in a victory over Boston on Wednesday, collected a pass off the boards from Tanner Glass and worked around Columbus defenseman Jack Johnson before slipping the puck under Bobrovsky’s pads to make it 2-0 just 1:10 into the second.
"I don’t really pay too much attention to trying to score goals all the time," Sutter said. "It feels better to get a couple and get the monkey off the back. Hopefully I’ll try to stay hot."
The Penguins needed less than 2 minutes to push their advantage to 3-0. Letang fired a shot from outside the left circle that Bobrovsky mishandled. The puck slipped between his arm and his chest, and seconds later he was pulled in favor of backup Curtis Mclhinney.
McElhinney wasn’t even warmed up when Megna tapped in a beautiful backhand pass from Jussi Jokinen to put Pittsburgh up 5:34 into the second period. That was more than enough for Fleury, who improved to 21-2 in his last 23 regular-season starts at home.
NOTES: The teams will meet again in Columbus on Saturday. … The Penguins are 8-1 when scoring first. … Crosby has at least one point in 12 of Pittsburgh’s 14 games. … Pittsburgh center Evgeni Malkin recorded two assists but had a second-period goal overturned when replay showed the puck didn’t entirely cross the goal line. … The Blue Jackets scratched D Nikita Nikitin and F Boone Jenner. … The Penguins scratched D Rob Scuderi (ankle), F Chuck Kobasew (lower body) and F Matt D’Agostini (lower body).