Penguins falter late, Jackets capitalize

Blue Jackets' Derek MacKenzie (24) checks Pittsburgh's Chris Kunitz during the first period of Game 4.

Robert Leifheit/Rob Leifheit-USA TODAY Sports

COLUMBUS, Ohio — It was all but over.

Game 4. Pretty much the series, too.

The Pittsburgh Penguins had dominated early and then gotten pushed around from there, but they’d pushed back hard enough and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury had stopped enough shots that they were all set to escape. The Penguins’ equipment truck was fired up and heading back east, anyway; the Penguins were all of 22.5 seconds away from skating out of Columbus with a 3-1 series lead over the Blue Jackets.

Didn’t happen. That 3-1 has been the magic number, the one that’s kept both coaches and fan bases up at night. Through four games of this Stanley Cup Playoffs first-round series, a team has led 3-1. Four times now, that team has lost, 4-3.

This latest was the hardest to believe. With the desperate Blue Jackets having pulled their goalie and trying to pull a miracle in the final minute, they pulled one. Fleury went behind the net to play a bouncing puck but didn’t handle it, and Ryan Johansen then flicked it in front of the net to Brandon Dubinsky, who had an open look at tying the game and did.

Just 2:49 into overtime, a Nick Foligno shot from probably 50 feet out went right by Fleury, the series was even again and the door the Penguins had left just barely cracked swung back and smacked them across the collective forehead.

"The puck just dropped," Fleury said of the winning goal. "He hit it through our guy’s legs, and it seemed to drop in front of me."

Across the Penguins’ locker room, chins were dropped in disbelief. Three goals in a five-minute span in the first period gave the Penguins a 3-0 lead. It was 3-1 by the end of the first period and 3-2 after two. The Blue Jackets are relentless, but the Penguins threw the first few punches and were still fighting in the third.

Considering the Penguins played six shorthanded minutes and were outshot 18-6 in the second period but still got out with the lead, they had to feel OK about things. Considering they held that lead all the way into the final 30 seconds despite being outshot 46-25 and that they didn’t really generate any quality chances past that first period, they would have gladly taken the win home and worried about the second period later.

Instead, they were left to lament going flat, taking those penalties and not slamming the door.

"Having to kill off a 5-on-3 and another (power play) after that, they gained a goal and a ton of momentum in the second period," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "We needed to keep the game at 3-1 and weren’t able to do that. We settled it down for a good portion of the third but ended up giving up the late one."

Asked if Fleury made a mistake in leaving the goal at that late point of regulation with a one-goal lead, Bylsma hesitated.

"If the puck comes around flat and he stops it and makes a different play, it’s not," Bylsma said. "It was bouncing the whole way. He ends up leaving an empty cage.

"It ends up being a mistake."

It could end up being a series changer.

After Monday night’s Game 3, an exhausted Fleury sat at his locker a good 25 minutes after the game with his pads still on. Wednesday night, he was quickly packed up and ready to depart.

Last spring, Fleury was benched in a first-round series. He’s played in these games and has played well in them. In fact, he’d made 38 of 40 saves in Game 4 before going behind the net then being caught as a spectator when the puck ended up in front.

"A loss is a loss," Fleury said.

This one really hurt the Penguins, though. It could have been different. It was so close to being different.

"We have two days here," Bylsma said. "We have to respond … the whole team."

Momentum is now on the other side. It was another battle, another comeback, another reversal of fortune.

It’s been a heck of a series already. Now it goes back to Pittsburgh with the Blue Jackets holding both the momentum and plenty of hope.

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