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Penguins survive late scare, eliminate Blue Jackets in Game 6

| Monday, April 28, 2014, 9:55 p.m.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Matt Niskanen tried to laugh it off.

Otherwise, there was no defense of how the Penguins almost blew it again.

“I don't know what to say,” Niskanen said. “The only thing I can think of is we care so much that nobody wants to be the guy to screw up. We just lately have been forgetting to play the game. We stop moving our feet and just slap the puck around. I mean, you know they're coming.

“A win's a win. We won the series, but we'll have to talk about that.”

The Penguins won Round 1 on Monday night, eliminating the Columbus Blue Jackets with a 4-3 victory at Nationwide Arena.

They overcame goal slumps by franchise centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the loss of defenseman Brooks Orpik, three short-handed goals allowed, consistent punishment from Blue Jackets' forwards, internalization of external Cup-or-bust expectations and a knack for giving up leads.

They almost gave another one away in Game 6.

Ahead 4-0 and on a power play near the midpoint of the final period, the Penguins surrendered a short-handed goal to defenseman Fedor Tyutin. About five minutes later, a power-play goal by winger Artem Anisimov and an even-strength marker from winger Nick Foligno had the Penguins' lead down to one — and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury wondering, “What is going on?”

“We had played so good,” Fleury said. “But we won, though, so that's what counts.”

Fleury finished with 24 saves to earn his first postseason series win in four years.

It only felt like that long since Crosby or Malkin had scored. Their respective postseason goal droughts were at 10 and nine games, respectively, before Game 6.

Malkin downplayed the significance of his morning practice individual work of shooting pucks into empty nets, but James Neal said he could tell then a breakout loomed.

Malkin scored three goals, his second career postseason hat trick, and finished with six shots — his highest total of the series.

“He was firing pucks (Monday) morning and hitting the back of the net every time,” Neal said. “I know he was feeling good and confident.”

Malkin's confidence was best exemplified by where he directed shots on the first and third goals he scored against Columbus goalie Sergei Bobrovsky.

“It's my favorite (to) shoot low and blocker (side),” Malkin said.

The favored Penguins won the best-of-seven series 4-2. They will next play either the New York Rangers or Philadelphia Flyers in Round 2. The Rangers lead the Flyers, 3-2, with Game 6 on Tuesday at Philadelphia.

Penguins centers Brandon Sutter and Joe Vitale did not finish Game 6. Sutter was hurt, seemingly by blocking a shot, in the second period. Vitale went down in the third on a knee-on-knee collision with Blue Jackets winger Blake Comeau.

Coach Dan Bylsma did not provide an update on those players' statuses.

Orpik missed a second consecutive game because of an undisclosed injury that stems from Game 4. He has not skated since leaving practice early Friday.

The Blue Jackets dolled out 306 hits to the Penguins' 180, but their six third-period goals were more disconcerting to the Penguins, who blew multiple-goal leads in losing Games 2 and 4.

Players are sick of talking about the trend of letting opponents off the mat.

“It wasn't necessarily perfect at the end,” Crosby said.

“I don't know. Don't ask me,” Malkin said.

“It's not an X-and-O thing,” Niskanen said. “It's a mentality. You can see we're in the right spots, but we're not as assertive or confident as we normally are when momentum starts to swing.

“Good teams, you find a way to get that momentum back quicker. The other team's going to make a push (when) their season is on the line. We've got to learn how to get the momentum back on our side or at least slow that down quicker.”

Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rrossi@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.

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