Good showing not good enough for CBJ
PITTSBURGH – It remains possible, maybe even likely, that a couple of the eight first-round series in this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs will be total duds.
Pittsburgh-Columbus will not be one of them.
One game is in the books, and it went in the favor of the home team. The Penguins dominated the third period and used a Brandon Sutter wrist shot to secure the winning margin in a 4-3 victory Wednesday night, but that win came after the Blue Jackets led, 3-1, early in the second period.
It was high-tempo, high-stakes playoff hockey inside Consol Energy Center. It could get really good from here.
The Penguins, the Eastern Conference’s No. 2 seed, are just getting fully healthy and played with a little more poise and a little more pace in the third period. They scored twice on the power play — that’s their specialty — and made the Blue Jackets pay for their mistakes.
"Learning is part of it, but we aren’t here just to go to school," Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards said. "The learning comes throught the experiences. We’re here to win. We came here expecting to win but it didn’t happen."
The box score will show that Sutter’s wrister from the right side with 11:42 to go won it, but the Blue Jackets might have lost it when the Penguins scored twice in 45 seconds after Derek MacKenzie’s shorthanded goal put the visitors up by two goals. The Blue Jackets led 2-1 after one, and MacKenzie scored just 43 seconds into the second.
Less than a minute later, the Penguins answered with a Beau Bennett goal on a power play — then answered again, and again on the power play with Matt Niskanen scoring off assists from Evgeni Malki and Sidney Crosby.
Crosby, who’s likely on his way to his second NHL MVP award, is simply brilliant when given space. Malkin is back leading the Penguins power play after sitting since March 11 due to a foot injury. Malkin still finished second on the Penguins with 72 points in 60 games; his assist Wednesday marked his 98th career playoff point.
That’s what the Blue Jackets are up against, one of hockey’s blue bloods. The Penguins are in the postseason for the eighth consecutive season; Penguins players came into the season with a total of 1,154 games of playoff experience compared to a total of 251 for the Blue Jackets.
Jack Johnson’s goal 6:20 into the first period gave the Blue Jackets their first playoff lead. Ever.
It had been 1,819 days since the Detroit Red Wings completed a four-game sweep of the Blue Jackets in 2009 until Wednesday night’s return to the playoffs. This Blue Jackets team has earned its way here but is still looking for the franchise’s first playoff win and hoping it can be a bridge to bigger, better things.
At Wednesday’s morning skate, Jackets veteran James Wisniewski said his team would soon realize playoff hockey "is going to be about four levels above" regular season action.
"Hockey on steroids," Wisniewski said.
Said Richards: "(The Penguins) are a tough team. They’re a very good offensive team. We were in a position but I wouldn’t say it slipped away."
It was fast Wednesday night, and the Jackets have to be faster from here.
"We have to clean up some errors," MacKenzie said. "We have to come back Saturday (in Game Two) and try to win.
"We proved to ourselves and to people watching that we can play with these guys."
Most folks in Pittsburgh probably loathe the Blue Jackets less than they simply don’t know them. Columbus isn’t far, but the Blue Jackets played in the Western Conference before this season and haven’t often played on the same plain as the Penguins.
The Penguins won the 2013-14 regular-season series, 5-0-0, too, though Blue Jackets goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky only played in one of those games. Only one of those games was played in the 2014 calendar year, and Blue Jackets were a different team down the stretch.
Proof the Blue Jackets won’t be intimidated came both in their hot start and further down the stat sheet; the Jackets made 48 of the game’s 75 hits. The Jackets outshot the Penguins, 25-22, through two periods but got outshot 10-7 in the third. Maybe the Penguins made the game’s most timely plays because of experience, because of talent or just because they had their wind. There’s also at least one Bobrovsky would like to have back.
Playing in front of a sold-out home crowd for the 328th consecutive game, the scoreboard decibel level reading registered well over 100 when the Penguins tied it, took the lead and eventually held off the Jackets and a sixth attacker in the final minute.
"There’s a level you have to reach here," Richards said. "What’s the atmposphere? What’s the crowd? We’re playing against a very good team. Sometimes that anticipation can be draining.
"If we’re turning pucks over, it feeds right in to what they want."
The Jackets just hustle. They hit with the Penguins and skated with the Penguins and were as aggressive as the Penguins, at least through two periods, and if they lose this series it won’t be because they’re not ready for the the stage or the opponent.
They have to make more plays. Late in the second period, Matt Calvert had a breakaway but never seemed to fully get his feet under him. He got a clean look at what would have been a go-ahead goal, but Marc-Andre Fleury swatted it away. It was a huge opportunity lost on a night where a message was sent, just a message that wasn’t strong enough.
This is going to be a series. One game and one Penguins win in, that much is now certain.