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Chipped Ice A.M.: Penguins let Blue Jackets punch themselves out

| Friday, April 21, 2017, 8:30 a.m.

Editor's note: Visit triblive.com for the Chipped Ice A.M. report every morning the Penguins play or practice throughout their playoff run.

Judo is a martial art in which practitioners use an attacker's own momentum against him.

The Penguins used a hockey version of judo to secure a 5-2 win Thursday night and oust Columbus in five games in a first-round Eastern Conference playoff series.

They took the Blue Jackets' greatest strength and turned it into a weakness.

The Blue Jackets came into the series with their reputation well established. They were a big, physical team that liked to throw punishing hits, especially on the forecheck. On every line, from Brandon Dubinsky to Boone Jenner to Josh Anderson, there was a hulking forward capable of stapling opponents to the boards.

The game plan against the Penguins was simple. The Blue Jackets were going to come out of the locker room with guns blazing and hit everything that moved for as long as they could.

To an extent, it worked. They recorded 197 hits in the five-game series.

“It was physical,” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “They don't pass up any opportunities to finish checks. They really tried to establish that from the first game.”

It turned out to be their downfall, too.

It wasn't because it wasn't effective at times. The Blue Jackets used their physical forecheck to make life miserable for Penguins defensemen in the opening minutes of every game in the series. Columbus had a cumulative shots advantage of 71-39 in the first period.

It wasn't because they took too many penalties either, as excessively physical teams often do. The Penguins went on the power play 15 times in the series, which is obviously more often than Columbus would have liked, but only two of those penalties were called during their opening-game surges.

It was because the style of play turned out to be unsustainable for a 60-minute game. On multiple occasions, the Blue Jackets punched themselves out, ran out of gas and allowed the Penguins to mount a successful counter-attack.

“I thought we were strong,” defenseman Ian Cole said. “We did a good job of recognizing when they were starting to gain momentum and turned momentum in our favor.”

It happened in almost every game.

-- In Game 1, the Blue Jackets outshot the Penguins 16-3 in the first period. The Penguins countered with goals from Bryan Rust and Phil Kessel in the first four minutes of the second.

-- In Game 2, Columbus held a 12-7 shots advantage in the first period. By the time the second period was eight minutes old, after the line of Jake Guentzel, Sidney Crosby and Conor Sheary connected twice, the Penguins were up 2-1.

-- In Game 5, the effect was most dramatic. The Blue Jackets built up an 8-3 shots edge in the first five minutes of the game. Only a spectacular performance from Marc-Andre Fleury stopped them from taking an early lead. But they didn't, and as soon as Kessel beat goalie Sergei Bobrovsky with a short-side wrister before the first period hit its midpoint, the Penguins were in front for good.

“They do such a good job of coming at you and really putting the pressure on in the first period,” defenseman Justin Schultz said. “I thought we did a good job of weathering that and then getting our momentum and getting our legs. We still want to have better starts, but I thought we did a good job of weathering the storm. That's one of the best teams in the league coming at us.”

The Blue Jackets never admitted that their frenetic first periods ended up hurting them later in games.

“I don't think it's energy,” Tortorella said. “I think it's just trying to deal with those surges in games in playoffs.”

The Penguins wouldn't explicitly say it was part of their strategy either. The closest they came was when winger Scott Wilson said before Game 5 that the Penguins needed to “tire them out a little bit more.”

But make no mistake. The Penguins are in the second round of the playoffs in large part because they used a rope-a-dope strategy to perfection.

THE SERIES: Penguins win, 4-1

LAST GAME: Bryan Rust scored two second-period goals and Marc-Andre Fleury made 49 saves as the Penguins blew open a close Game 5 with two third-period goals and came away with a 5-2 victory.

NEXT GAME: The Penguins are awaiting the winner of the Washington-Toronto series, which is tied 2-2 heading into Game 5 Friday night.

A NOTE: With his first-period goal in Game 5, Kessel further cemented his status as one of the most clutch playoff scorers in the NHL today. Among active players with at least 50 postseason games played, Kessel is second in goals per game (0.49), just barely behind Washington's Alex Ovechkin (0.50).

A QUOTE: “I've kind of learned to expect the unexpected. Anything can happen. There's huge momentum swings either way. Just kind of stay even keel throughout the entire thing. That's what I'm trying to do.” – Rust on playoff hockey

A NUMBER: 60 – wins for the Penguins in their last 80 home games, counting the regular season and playoffs

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jbombulie@tribweb.com or via Twitter at @BombulieTrib.

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