Hustle over experience in Jackets-Pens series?
COLUMBUS, Ohio – Besides the 5-0-0 regular-season record the No. 2 seed Pittsburgh Penguins had against the No. 7 seed Columbus Blue Jackets entering their first-round Stanley Cup Playoff series, the Penguins had other notable edges in areas such as big-stage experience.
The Penguins are in the playoffs for the eighth straight year and played in the conference finals last year. Last Saturday night’s Game Two in Pittsburgh was the 300th playoff game for the Penguins franchise. For the Blue Jackets, it was the sixth.
The Blue Jackets won that game in double overtime, 4-3, essentially rendering all those past records and the overall postseason experience edge (1,154 total games of playoff experience for the Penguins compared to 251 for the Blue Jackets) entering the series useless.
Now, it’s just a fight — first to win three more wins. And the Blue Jackets have plenty of reasons from the first two games to think they can win it.
First, they’ve stolen home-ice advantage. Game Three Monday night is back in Columbus, and now that the Jackets have their first-ever playoff win in the books they can go for their first home playoff win.
Most importantly, the new home team has momentum. The Jackets rallied from a 3-1 deficit in Game Two by dominating the final 30 or so minutes of regulation and then finally winning it 1:10 in the second overtime on a Matt Calvert goal. The Blue Jackets led Game One 3-1 before losing 4-3, so they know they’re very much in this thing.
Presumably, the Penguins know it.
"At times we have probably lacked some desperation that we need," Penguins defenseman Paul Martin said.
Monday night’s Game Three would be a good place to start. It’s suddenly the biggest game the Blue Jackets franchise has ever played, and on the other side the Penguins know they need to shift the momentum if they want to reach their lofty goals.
Speaking of goals, the Penguins were NHL’s best power-play team during the regular season and scored twice on the power play in Game One. They were just 1-of-9 in Game Two, including two empty overtime chances. The defense has struggled, too, as the Jackets got off 41 shots from the second period through the second overtime Saturday night. Frankly, the Jackets could have scored more.
"We have to play smart," Penguins defenseman Matt Niskanen said. "Not necessarily play simple…but making sure you’re not giving up odd-man breaks and easy scoring chances, unnecessary ones. That’s something we need to get better at."
Niskanen has a goal and an assist in each game. He plays on the top power-play unit that features Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin but has given up shorthanded goals in each game, too.
"We’ve had spurts where we’ve been really solid," Niskanen said.
The Penguins have been here before — in the playoff games, in overtime games, in even series — and that experience can still matter. But it comes down to execution and making the plays, and so far the Blue Jackets have made just as many and maybe more than the favored Penguins have made.
"We’ve got to be better," Crosby said after Game Two. "That’s really, I think, the bottom line."