Penguins rally to escape with a victory in Game 1 against Columbus
Evgeni Malkin dumped a puck early. A third-liner scored the go-ahead goal late. The Penguins held onto a lead.
This was not a perfect opening to the Stanley Cup playoffs, but it provided a look at how things are different with these Penguins.
Start, as veteran winger Craig Adams did, with the lead that was protected after center Brandon Sutter scored what proved to be the final goal with about 12 minutes remaining in regulation of a 4-3 victory over Columbus at Consol Energy Center on Wednesday night.
The Blue Jackets registered only five shots after Sutter's marker.
“That's what we've been working on the last few years,” Adams said. “We don't always do it, but we've gotten better at it.
“Actually, I thought right from the first period we had the right guys making the right play with the puck: (Malkin) dumping the puck in, (James Neal) dumping the puck, stuff like that.
“We made a couple of mistakes and got burned, but we stayed patient, and as the game went on you could see it working.”
The Penguins lead the best-of-seven series 1-0. Game 2 is Saturday night at Consol Energy Center.
Since winning the Cup in 2009, the Penguins have taken the first two home games from a series only once in seven attempts. They did it in seven of eight series during their 2008 and '09 Final runs.
The Blue Jackets, in only their fifth playoff game, nearly stole home-ice advantage. They raced to a 3-1 lead — scoring at even strength (defenseman Jack Johnson), on the power play (center Mark Letestu) and short-handed (center Derek MacKenzie) — before a couple of quick-strike goals by the Penguins early in the second period.
Winger Beau Bennett and defenseman Matt Niskanen scored within 45 seconds of one another after Bennett needed only 51 seconds to answer MacKenzie's goal.
The Penguins finished only plus-1 on special teams because they surrendered a power-play and short-handed goal, but they again used the man-advantage to get over on the Blue Jackets. In five regular-season meetings, all victories, the Penguins relied on the power play for five of 16 goals.
Blue Jackets defenseman James Wisniewski said their plan was to play aggressive and force the Penguins to take penalties — and that happened.
Coach Dan Bylsma was particularly displeased with defenseman Kris Letang's second-period slashing penalty after the Penguins rallied to pull even. Bylsma also was not satisfied with players who were tasked with high-forward responsibilities in the offensive zone.
“It cost us a couple of odd-man rushes in the first period and even later into the second,” Bylsma said.
He also credited the Blue Jackets' penchant for “putting in a lot of pucks” to disrupt the Penguins' breakout.
The Blue Jackets finished with 48 hits. Letestu described the Blue Jackets' physicality as “an investment.”
“We're prepared to go seven games or whatever it takes,” Letestu said. “We still have to pound them physically, hopefully wear them down and reap the rewards later on.”
The Penguins, captain Sidney Crosby said, have prepared themselves to play simpler hockey in the postseason than they have, specifically in the past two opening-round struggles against Philadelphia and the New York Islanders.
Game 1 against Columbus was a start, although at the start of it goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was forced to make too many high-quality saves for any of his teammates' liking.
Again, this was not a perfect playoff opener for the Penguins, but they — like Fleury — finished strong and won, which is all that matters in the postseason.
“Very big,” Crosby said of Fleury's 31 saves, including 22 over the first two periods. “We made some big mistakes. He had to bail us out a few times. We have to limit those. But you don't win the playoffs without goaltending like that.”