Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury (29) catches the puck in the game against the Columbus Blue Jackets in game six of the first round of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Nationwide Arena. The Penguins won the game 4-3.
Greg Bartram/Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports
COLUMBUS, Ohio – The Pittsburgh Penguins look both whole and confident again, and they move forward accordingly.
Just barely, but forward they go.
The Penguins survived a wild first-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets as much as anything else, but in postgame locker room that was happy but subdued, that was just fine. A 4-3 win in Game Six Monday night — their third 4-3 win of the series — pushes the Penguins ahead to the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, where the winner of the Philadelphia Flyers-New York Rangers series will await.
The Penguins might relish a day or two to catch their collective breath after six games with the Blue Jackets, who didn’t quit despite trailing 4-0 in the third period in Game Six. The game came down to a final Blue Jackets chance the Penguins had to scramble to swat away while waiting for time to expire.
"Playoff hockey is extremely hard," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "All around the league it’s hard to win in playoff hockey . It’s a battle and this was every bit of that. That’s four wins and we’re on to the next round.
"(The Blue Jackets) are a tough opponent. There’s an emotional part of it. The highs of winning and the disappointment of giving up leads, coming back…it’s never easy. It doesn’t start in the second or third round. It’s hard right from the start. we had to get there, had to find that out and fight for it."
Experience and superior skill eventually won out; Evgeni Malkin’s hat trick Game Six helped, too, especially considering he didn’t score a single goal earlier in the series. The Penguins won the regular-season series over the Blue Jackets, 5-0-0, and the Blue Jackets had never won a playoff game until Game Two of this series on April 19 in Pittsburgh.
Game Six marked the first time in the series the team that scored first won the game. The first two periods Monday night felt like a carryover from the final two periods in Game Five, when the Penguins controlled the puck, were precise with their passing and movement and were basically dominant.
A shorthanded goal by Fedor Tyutin with 9:39 left Monday night started a wild rally that produced two more Blue Jackets goals in the ensuing five minutes came up short. It was a fitting end, really.
"It was a good test," Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury said.
Past his late Game Four meltdown that led to the Blue Jackets evening the series, Fleury got the equivalent of a four-day weekend in Game Five and early in Game Six. In the end, though, he got his first playoff series win since 2010 — he was benched in last year’s six-game first-round defeat of the New York Islanders — and the Penguins get to move on.
"Everyone kept it together," said Penguins star Sidney Crosby, who didn’t score a goal in the series but had assists in each of the final two games. "You’re not going to be perfect. It’s a 60-minute game. I thought we found our game the last two games in this series, played the way we needed to and we got two wins.
"We have to build off of it. In the playoffs, you always have to get better as they go along."
Crosby is anxious to snap his streak of 11 straight playoff games without a goal. Malkin emphatically ended his 10-game streak in the same category Monday night, and a strategic shift to play his two biggest stars together by Bylsma has the Penguins feeling good about their chances going forward.
They should know nothing will come easy. In six games, the Blue Jackets very much reminded them of that.
"I watched the (Anaheim-Dallas) game (Sunday) night in Dallas and you see just crazy, crazy stuff happen on the ice," Byslma said. "In pretty much every playoff series you see that happen…rallies late, pushes late, goals late.
"I think we’ll certainly understand the importance of closing out a game from here. The bottom line is we got our third and fourth wins here in Games Five and Six and we get to move on."