Jack Johnson (middle) is not afraid of the big, bad Penguins.
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY Sports
COLUMBUS, Ohio — A momentary lapse by the Blue Jackets in the third period Monday night was all that it took for the Pittsburgh Penguins to score three goals and snatch the victory in Game 3. With a 2-1 series lead belonging to the Penguins, can the Blue Jackets set another franchise milestone and win their first playoff game at home Wednesday night?
If you ask the guys in the room, the answer is a resounding "yes." Defenseman Jack Johnson summed up what all of the players are thinking about this series after the game on Monday.
"They put their skates on one foot at a time just like we do," he said. "They’re nothing special. We’re a pretty damn good hockey team, too. We’re not shying away from anything. We’re in the series to win the Stanley Cup and they’re in our way."
While the loss stung, it more so increased their determination and sharpened their focus. They know there is still much hockey to be played. And if the series goes the distance, so be it. They are not shying away from the task at hand.
A "hot" goalie can make all the difference in the playoffs. And while both Columbus’ Sergei Bobrovsky and Pittsburgh’s Marc-Andre Fleury have been good, neither has stolen a game for their team.
Bobrovsky has shown throughout the season that he can shrug off a loss rather quickly. He was already thinking ahead to the next game almost as soon as Game 3 was over.
"I just try to focus on my game," he said, "and keep it simple and just stop the puck. We’ve got to work hard. We all have to battle and compete. We just have to put (Game 3 loss) behind us and focus on the next one. We have to be (together) as a group and work hard."
While much has been ballyhooed about the Penguins’ regular-season sweep of Columbus, all the contests between the two have been close. Of the eight games played between the two this year, five of them have been one-goal affairs, including all three playoff games.
It’s not a question of whether the Blue Jackets can "hang" with Sidney Crosby and the rest of the Penguins. It’s more a question of who wants it more?
The pressure and expectations foisted on Pittsburgh head coach Dan Bylsma mounted after losing Game 2 at home. His seat is getting warm and there are already calls for his job if he loses the series to Columbus. There is the added pressure of getting his star players to score, as the Blue Jackets have effectively contained them through three games.
"I don’t think you can wait around for an opportunity, a goal to happen or lightning to strike," Bylsma said. "I think the important part is exactly how they are going to come. The goals we got in the last game were evidence of that."
For the first time in the series, the Penguins started to crash the net, adjusting from the perimeter game they had been playing.
"I don’t think we can expect it to be an easy goal," he continued, "or a flash goal, a two-on-one or an odd-man opportunity. It’s going to be dirty and ugly. That’s where we’ve got to go and that’s where we’ve got to get them from."
Conversely, the Blue Jackets are under no such expectations outside of the locker room. Winning Game 2, the franchise’s first playoff victory, appeased many within the fan base. The players savored the moment, but it was just one victory. You need 16 wins to earn the right to hold that silver chalice above your head.
Getting back to playing "Blue Jackets hockey" is foremost in the minds of the players. They don’t want to have a recurrence of the lapse that was seen in Game 3.
"Obviously, there’s a lot of hockey left," said left wing RJ Umberger. "We’ve got to regroup. We’ve answered the bell all year on adversity and we’ll come at it (for Game 4)."
The player tasked with containing the Penguins Sidney Crosby is center Brandon Dubinsky. He’s done well to bottle-up the Pittsburgh star through three games, taking away Crosby’s time and space, while playing a physical game against him. Quitting is not in his lexicon.
"It’s a seven-game series, a tough series," Dubinsky said. "They’ve got a good team over there. We’ve got to find a way to rebound and be resilient. We have been all year long and I’m confident in this group."
What has been working for Columbus is keeping the Penguins to the perimeter, notwithstanding the lapse in Game 3. They have been clogging the shooting lanes and taking the body, both of which are the epitome of their game. This has been especially true when they are on the penalty kill.
"I think guys are sacrificing (their bodies)," he said. "We’re getting in the shooting lanes and not letting them make the pretty plays that they are generally accustomed to making with all of the skill that they have. It has to be a huge part of our game, but we can’t give them six or seven (power play) opportunities."
They expect the Penguins to come hard in Game 4, but the Blue Jackets have shown they can push back, too. The expectation for Wednesday night’s tilt is one of the physicality being ramped up even more. Evening the series at 2-2 going back to Pittsburgh for Game 5 is paramount as they look to make a run in this postseason.
Silencing the naysayers by proving they can play the game at this level is part of their psyche. It’s an "us against the world" mentality that drives them. Approval is not what they’ve sought. All the while, they are earning respect with each game they play. The bottom line is that they believe they can win.