Penguins rally to down Blue Jackets, inch closer to Round 2
The word was not “pressure.” It was “expectation,” and it came from outside the dressing room.
So the Penguins finally decided to take on that taboo topic — Stanley Cup-or-bust — because they had too much to lose to let it possibly crush them.
With a 3-1 victory Saturday night at Consol Energy Center, the Penguins put playoff pressure on their upstart first-round opponent, the Columbus Blue Jackets.
The Penguins lead the best-of-seven series 3-2 and can bounce the Blue Jackets with a win Monday at Nationwide Arena in Columbus.
Blue Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky faced 50 shots. He made 48 saves, but winger Jussi Jokinen's third series goal early in the third period broke a 1-1 tie.
The Penguins pulled even in the second period on winger Chris Kunitz's second goal, a power-play score that was one of 21 Penguins shots in the period — or only four fewer than their total from a Game 4 overtime loss.
“It was our intensity,” defenseman Paul Martin said. “We were strong on the boards. The way that we moved the puck, we managed that well. We didn't give opportunities to get in on the forecheck, and when we had the puck in their end, we held onto it and got it to the net.
“That was it, really.”
That was what liberation looked like in Game 5.
Indeed, the Penguins felt liberated entering this pivotal contest — Game 5 winners win 79 percent of series that are tied 2-2 — because they owned up to what defenseman Rob Scuderi described as “the burden of expectations.”
Five years ago, the Cup came back to Pittsburgh, and the then-young Penguins, led by centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, were ticketed for a dynastic run.
They have won three playoff series since, despite paying Crosby, Malkin and Fleury $115.75 million since the Cup win.
Though tied in the series with Columbus, coach Dan Bylsma said that Game 5 “(felt) like a response game.”
The response started two days earlier during off-day meetings with players.
“To be honest, I don't think we used the word pressure,” Bylsma said. “(We talked) more (about) expectations, outside perception, outside expectations on the group and bringing that to the rink.”
Bylsma said players — he declined to provide specifics — first addressed the subject.
One of those players was winger James Neal, who joined the Penguins in 2011 and was not part of their 2008 run to the Cup Final or their triumphant return the next season.
“We always have the expectation (to win), and it comes with the guys we have in our locker room,” Neal said. “I'm sure at times it's been harder for those guys, even before I got here.”
Those guys, Neal said, are Crosby and Malkin, the Penguins' former MVPs and multiple-time scoring champions. Neither has a goal against Columbus, nor has either scored since Round 2 against Ottawa last postseason. Crosby attempted 11 shots in Game 5, placing six on Bobrovsky. Malkin tried four, putting two on net.
Bylsma broke form and played Crosby and Malkin together at even strength, with Malkin moving to the right wing on the top line.
“They wanted to be together,” Bylsma said. “They wanted to go after it.”
So did Fleury, whose attempt to play a puck late in Game 4 led to Columbus' tying goal. The Blue Jackets won in overtime, and Fleury spent the next two days trying to shut out negativity from the outside world.
“That's the thing about the playoffs — everything gets magnified — and that's where pressure becomes a factor,” Martin said, noting Fleury's 42 saves in Game 4.
Fleury has not won a playoff series since 2010. With 23 saves in Game 5, he positioned himself for an enjoyable post-series handshake.
It's been a while for him, and it had been a while — since the Olympic break in February — since the Penguins felt as good about themselves as they did throughout Game 5, Crosby said.
“Especially in the second intermission,” Crosby said. “It felt like we were jumping and found the next level of our game. We just wanted to make sure we maintained that, didn't sit back and went after it.”
Actually, Martin said, the Penguins went after it the morning after Game 4. Whatever happened Saturday night was a manifestation of some tough talk.
“We had never really addressed it up until (that) point,” Martin said. “We just would play with the expectation we would be the team we had for the regular season, where we won games because someone eventually took over or found ways to win no matter who was in the lineup.
“We just figured something was eventually going to happen.”
Under pressure, the Penguins put it on the Blue Jackets, and now a series is theirs for the taking.