Behind Fleury, Bennett, Penguins down Blue Jackets
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Their nicknames are Flower and Sunshine. They brightened an otherwise gloomy March for the Penguins.
Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 35 of 36 shots, and winger Beau Bennett notched the game-winning goal as the Penguins emerged with a 2-1 victory at Nationwide Arena against a Columbus Blue Jackets team fighting for a playoff spot.
The victory clinched a postseason berth for the Penguins. It may have done something for their confidence, too.
“We needed this one,” defenseman Robert Bortuzzo said.
The Penguins entered the game having lost six of their past eight, looking lifeless at times during that stretch.
Two of the biggest personalities on the team brought them to life in Columbus.
Eight hours before the game, Fleury playfully jumped into the Penguins bench area and tackled a TV reporter, much to the entertainment of the few people in the building.
With a sellout crowd in the arena at night, Fleury put on another show.
“His personality is a huge thing for us as a team,” center Brandon Sutter said. “Not many goalies have that kind of a personality. But he's our energy guy. He always puts a smile on our faces. And the way he played tonight was what we needed.”
Bennett also made those in the Penguins organization smile. Out since November with a broken wrist, he arguably was the game's dominant forward.
He led all Penguins forwards with four hits, fired three shots on net, consistently set up linemates Jussi Jokinen and James Neal and scored the game-winner in the third period.
Earlier in the week, general manager Ray Shero told coach Dan Bylsma that Bennett looked strong during a rehabilitation stint in Wilkes-Barre.
“I think Ray is a pretty good scout,” Bylsma said. “That's my assessment. That was a real strong game for Beau. Real authoritative. One of the better games I've seen him play.”
The Penguins were short-handed four times in the first two periods and often on the defensive. Fleury made two key saves at the beginning of the first and second periods, robbing right wing Cam Atkinson with a glove save and stopping center Brandon Dubinsky early in the second.
“I haven't won in a while, and it was a little frustrating,” Fleury said. “I just wanted to stick with my game.”
He helped the Penguins stick around until their offense came to life.
Center Sidney Crosby set up left wing Chris Kunitz's 34th goal of the season midway through the third period. Then, 47 seconds later, Bennett skated on the right wing on a two-on-one rush with Jokinen and coolly buried a shot past goalie Curtis McElhinney's blocker.
“I was actually thinking pass from the red line to the top of the circle,” Bennett said. “But the guy was playing Jussi. It gave me some space.”
It was the perfect ending to Bennett's strong performance.
“I'm not surprised,” Bortuzzo said. “Impressed but not surprised. I live with the guy and see him every day. I see the work ethic he has. He's been incredible, and I know he's missed the game. We all know he's got the talent.”
Many Penguins said they have come to expect such strong performances from Fleury.
It is clear Bennett's performance left the Penguins feeling encouraged, too. He could receive a look on the Penguins' top two lines in the playoffs, even if the Penguins get healthy. Bennett did nothing to hurt his chances Friday.
“He was great,” right wing Craig Adams said. “The puck was on his stick all night.”
Josh Yohe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @JoshYohe_Trib.
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