COLUMBUS, Ohio — One more win and the Pittsburgh Penguins sweep their way to the next round of the NHL Stanley Cup playoffs.
One more loss for the Columbus Blue Jackets and the best season in franchise history comes to an abrupt end.
The Penguins enter Game 4 of the best-of-seven Eastern Conference first-round series on Tuesday night at Nationwide Arena with a comfortable 3-0 lead. But as much as they would like a sweep, the Penguins know it’s dangerous to bring out the brooms too early.
Coverage begins at 7 p.m. on FOX Sports Ohio
“I think it’s going to be the toughest game of the series,” Penguins rookie Jake Guentzel said.
Pittsburgh knows it will be facing a team fighting for survival in its home rink. Columbus missed a breakthrough opportunity on Sunday night, letting go of a 3-1 lead and losing 5-4 in overtime on Guentzel’s third goal of the game.
Penguins coach Mike Sullivan is taking his usual cautious approach to Game 4 in what so far has been a competitive series despite Pittsburgh’s three wins.
“We haven’t done anything to this point,” Sullivan said. “We haven’t accomplished anything. We’ve got to make sure we approach (Tuesday’s) game just like we approached the first three.
“We’ve got to be ready to play. We’ve got to be ready to win a hockey game. We can’t dwell on the past. We can’t live in the future. We’ve got to stay in the moment.”
The Penguins expect the Blue Jackets’ best shot. And Columbus hopes to give it to them now that its two options are win to send the series back to Pittsburgh or start summer vacation in April.
“There really is no special recipe,” Blue Jackets captain Nick Foligno said. “It’s just do or die right now. We’ve played good hockey. It’s unfortunate we’ve put ourselves in this situation.
“We have a chance to go out and play for all that we need to. I think that might bode well for us where we really have nothing to lose and I think it’s going to allow us to let our game go.
We have a chance to go there and try to make a series of it.”
Foligno and his teammates have to be kicking themselves for letting a win get away on Sunday. After the Blue Jackets roared out to a 3-1 lead after one period, the Penguins seized the momentum in the second and came back to tie, then take the lead in the third and eventually win in overtime.
“It’s the stomping on the throat, as graphic as that may sound, to finish the game,” Foligno said. “Really, that’s what we got away from. In the second period, we let them crawl back. In this series or in the playoffs, when you’re up 3-1, you’ve got to find a way to shut the door and lock it down, and we just didn’t do that.”
The Blue Jackets will welcome back forward Matt Calvert from a one-game suspension, but they will be without standout rookie defenseman Zach Werenski.
Werenski took a puck to the face in the second period on Sunday, left the ice bleeding profusely and then returned for several shifts in the third until he could no longer see well enough to play. The gruesome facial injury will sideline him for the remainder of the playoffs.
That makes the Blue Jackets’ uphill climb even steeper against the defending Stanley Cup champions, but veteran forward Scott Hartnell reminded his teammates Monday that the deficit is not insurmountable.
In 2010, Hartnell played a role in the Philadelphia Flyers’ comeback from a 3-0 deficit against the Boston Bruins to win a first-round series.
“We’re still in this thing,” Hartnell said. “We’ve still got another game to play. I don’t think any of us envisioned this. I thought we deserved a better fate. We’re playing good enough to win.
“There is a belief in (the locker room). There were good vibes that were positive. We’ll still here and putting on our skates.”