Despite Matt Murray’s strong performance, Penguins fall to Blue Jackets
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Faced with the prospect of falling six points behind the Pittsburgh Penguins in the standings, the Columbus Blue Jackets were forced into the role of a cornered animal Saturday night.
Not even a spectacular performance from goalie Matt Murray could keep them from claiming their prey.
Boone Jenner and Cam Atkinson scored to stake the Blue Jackets to a two-goal lead, and despite a handful of highlight-reel saves from Murray, they secured a 4-1 victory over the Penguins at Nationwide Arena.
The Penguins remain in a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference race, but they’re only two points ahead of the Blue Jackets. The Penguins saw a streak of six straight games with at least one point in the standings (4-0-2) and eight straight victories over Columbus come to an end.
“Everyone in the room kind of feels for (Murray) because he played unbelievable, and we weren’t able to capitalize on some chances,” winger Zach Aston-Reese said.
It wasn’t hard to pinpoint what did in the Penguins. They were outplayed dramatically in the first 10 minutes of the first period, and they gave up their league-leading 14th short-handed goal early in the second.
Given Columbus’ precarious position in the standings, the Penguins knew they would face an inspired forecheck and aggressive attack in front of a hostile crowd in the opening moments of the game.
They still couldn’t handle it.
The Blue Jackets took a 1-0 lead less than three minutes in. After a failed Justin Schultz pinch, Josh Anderson knocked down a bouncing puck in the neutral zone and fed Jenner for a goal off the rush.
It would have been 2-0 about three minutes later had it not been for Murray’s first five-star save of the game, a lunging stop with the blade of his stick on a backdoor chance by Jenner.
“They came out flying. They were finishing every check, and the crowd’s into it. You can’t even really hear yourself think,” Aston-Reese said. “It’s almost like a suffocating feeling. We just weren’t able to make plays under that kind of pressure.”
The Blue Jackets scored short-handed less than three minutes into the second to take a 2-0 lead.
Most of the short-handed goals the Penguins allowed this season came as the result of a turnover on an overly ambitious pass or a casual backchecking effort. Not this one.
This time, Phil Kessel simply wiped out while attempting to play a Schultz drop pass. Atkinson skated the other way and beat Murray stick side.
The problem wasn’t Kessel falling down, coach Mike Sullivan said. It was the general discombobulation that led to the gaffe.
“We have to be better at the details,” Sullivan said. “When you talk about power-play breakouts, it’s about cooperative play. It’s timing.”
The Penguins got within one thanks to an Aston-Reese goal off an Evgeni Malkin feed and a turnover forced by Kessel. They stayed in the game thanks to Murray.
He counted a second improbable backdoor save on a surefire Markus Nutivaara goal in the third period among his 29 stops.
Murray wasn’t completely thrilled with his performance.
“I wouldn’t say I was in the zone,” he said. “I made some pretty bad reads, honestly, which is why I had to kind of get desperate on some of them. You’re a little lucky, too.”
His teammates disagreed.
“He’s great,” Malkin said. “A couple huge saves. Both goalies played well, but we’re lucky we have Murray on our team. The last week, too, he’s played unbelievable. We need to help him a little bit, because sometimes, we lose players in the ‘D’ zone. We (give) them great chances to score. Play a little bit tight in the ‘D’ zone, and we’ll be fine.”
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan by email at email@example.com or via Twitter .