Empty Thoughts: Penguins 7, Blue Jackets 2 | TribLIVE.com
Penguins/NHL

Empty Thoughts: Penguins 7, Blue Jackets 2

Seth Rorabaugh
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Observations from the Penguins’ 7-2 win against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

First things first, there was no update on forwards Evgeni Malkin or Nick Bjugstad. Malkin left the game at 8:04 of the second period after an awkward, but hardly violent, collision with Blue Jackets defenseman Vladislav Gavrikov along the boards near the Penguins’ bench.

Bjugstad left the game at 7:03 of the third period. It wasn’t immediately clear what may have plagued Bjugstad.

Coach Mike Sullivan said both were being evaluated and more information may be available on Sunday. The Penguins have no media availability on Sunday so a public update would not be available until Monday at the earliest, presumably.

As for the game, Malkin didn’t complete the Penguins’ decimation of the Blue Jackets at PPG Paints Arena on Saturday. But his influence on this contest was unmistakable.

Two nights after Malkin julienned his team’s effort and implored them to change, the Penguins sliced and diced a beleaguered Blue Jackets squad with a touchdown and showed they were capable of being a dynamic, offensive juggernaut, even when they lose key players.

Even without Malkin and Bjugstad and Sidney Crosby momentarily (he served a five-minute major penalty for a bout with rambunctious Blue Jackets center Pierre-Luc Dubois late in the second), the Penguins’ offense erupted in a way which would have earned anyone with a ticket a free cup of chili at local participating Wendy’s restaurants a generation or two ago.

“Our first game was not good enough,” said forward Patric Hornqvist, who scored his first two goals of the season. “Tonight, we played a really good team and a really good team game. Showed up on the scoreboard. Our effort was there. We were committed to playing the right way. As a five-man unit out there, it makes it so much easier. Then, obviously, when you get those couple of quick of goals, you just get confidence in the group. We were skating. We did all the right things in the first period too but we didn’t get the goals. But when the goals started coming, we took a deep breath and relaxed a little bit more and played hockey.”

What happened

Following a goalless opening period, the Penguins opened the scoring 1:45 into the second. After a strong offensive rush by the third line, Hornqvist hounded Blue Jackets defenseman Zach Werenski into a turnover behind the cage. Penguins forward Jared McCann claimed the puck and, from the left circle, moved a pass to the left point for defenseman Jack Johnson, who fired an immediate wrister. Hornqvist, positioned in the slot, tipped the puck past the blocker of goaltender Elvis Merzlikins, a rookie making his first career start. Johnson and McCann were credited with assists.

They made it 2-0 at the 4:14 mark of the second. Crosby stole a puck off of Werenski behind the net, and from the right circle, he fed it to the left point for advancing defenseman Marcus Pettersson. Surveying the cage, Pettersson ripped a wrister that clunked off the underside of Merzlikins’ glove and bounced into the cage. Crosby got the lone assist.

Columbus got on the scoreboard at 6:45 of the second. Following a turnover by Crosby in the Penguins’ slot, Blue Jackets forward Jakob Lilja lifted a wrister from the left circle that goaltender Matt Murray fended off. Columbus forward Nick Foligno collected the rebound to the left of the cage and backhanded a pass to forward Riley Nash in the slot. Nash fired a quick wrister, but a sliding Pettersson blocked the shot. The rebound skidded to Werenski to the right of the cage, and he lifted a wrister past the glove hand of a sprawling Murray. Nash and Foligno netted assists.

The Penguins went up by two at the 8:45 mark of the second. Columbus defenseman Ryan Murray fumbled a puck at the Penguins’ left point because of pressure from Penguins forward Brandon Tanev. Then McCann, substituting for Malkin on the second line, picked up the puck and created a two-on-one with forward Alex Galchenyuk against Blue Jackets defenseman Seth Jones. Electing to shoot from the right circle, McCann tucked a wrister under Merzlikins’ left arm on the far side. The goal was unassisted.

At 15:09 of the second, Crosby challenged Dubois in a bout that was more of a wrestling match than heavyweight tilt. The Penguins captain objected to a high hit Dubois had delivered to forward Jake Guentzel.

“I just wanted to go over there and stick up for him,” Crosby said. “It wasn’t much. It was more of a wrestling match than anything. I was lucky to get a (major) out of it than a (double minor).

“It was one of those things that wasn’t planned. I saw the hit and didn’t know what was going to happen when I went over there.”

The Penguins poured it on at 15:23 of the second. Galchenyk lugged the puck through the neutral zone, gained the offensive blue line at center point and flicked a backhand pass to McCann trailing on the left wing. With Columbus defenseman David Savard badly out of position, McCann had an acre of ice to operate in and fired a wrister past Merzlikins’ blocker on the near side. Galchenyuk had the sole assist.

Late in the second, the flood gates opened. With Malkin and Crosby absent, a de facto top power-play squad of defensemen Kris Letang, Justin Schultz, McCann, Hornqvist and Galchenyuk struck at 19:58. Galchenyuk fed a pass from the left wall through the slot, where McCann missed on a one-timer, for Letang on the right wall. Letang teed up a slapper that went between Merzlikins’ blocker and left ribs on the far side, thanks in part to a screen by Hornqvist. Galchenyuk and Schultz had assists.

Crosby made a sublime play midway through the third period by tapping a puck behind him with his backhand, through his legs and in front of him in the left circle. From the dot, he fed a forehand pass around Columbus defenseman Dean Kukan to the right circle, where a trailing Hornqvist ripped a shot past Merzlikins’ blocker on the far side at the 9:50 mark. Crosby and Guentzel had assists.

Forward Teddy Blueger got in on the act when he fired a wrister from the slot past the glove of Merzlikins, a fellow Latvian. Forward Dominik Kahun and Tanev recorded assists.

The Blue Jackets capped the scoring at 14:19 of the third when Nash forced Letang into a turnover in the right corner and fed a pass to forward Gustav Nyquist, who put a wrister behind Murray. The lone assist went to Nash.

The method and not so much the result is what pleased most of the Penguins.

“We just needed a good effort,” Gudbranson said. “It didn’t have to be 7-2. It could have been a 2-1 game. We just need to have a good effort and a good full 60 minutes which we accomplished today. We supported the puck very well. In every (area) of the rink, we were winning battles, putting pucks in good places and supporting each other. We put a lot of pucks on net instead of looking for that extra play and that created a lot of offense for us. “

The emotion Crosby displayed in his fight and Malkin’s rallying cry on Thursday were lauded by Sullivan.

“These guys, they are such great players but they’re great leaders as well,” Sullivan said. “Sid stands up for Jake tonight. He’s a courageous guy. These guys, they’re great leaders, they know what it takes to win. That’s why they’ve had the success that they’ve had here in Pittsburgh.”

Much of the success the Penguins enjoyed on Saturday was spawned in the aftermath of Thursday’s bland result which Malkin tore into.

“We all knew in the room what happened Thursday night,” said Gudbranson. “We came into practice on Friday. It was a little tense during that practice which is really good. It’s a good sign for this group to come back and bounce back with an effort like that tonight.”

Statistically speaking

• The Penguins led in shots, 40-30.

• Hornqvist and Foligno each led the game with seven shots.

• Jones led the game with 26:12 of ice time on 29 shifts.

• Letang led the Penguins with 24:08 of ice time on 26 shifts.

• The Penguins had a 26-25 edge in faceoffs (51 percent).

• Crosby was 11 for 19 (58 percent).

• Blue Jackets forward Alexander Wennberg was 10 for 15 (67 percent).

• Jones led the game with four blocked shots.

• Tanev and Pettersson each led the Penguins with two blocked shots.

Historically speaking

• Crosby (1,219) surpassed former Penguins defenseman Larry Murphy (1,217) for 41st place on the NHL’s career scoring list.

• Schultz (102 points) surpassed forwards Nick Harbaruk and Warren Young (101 each) for 90th place on the Penguins’ career scoring list.

• Galchenyuk, Kahun and Tanev each recorded their first points with the Penguins.

• Crosby’s fighting major was the seventh of his career (regular season only). Including playoffs, he has eight such majors. His last fight also came against the Blue Jackets when he tusseled with forward Brandon Dubinsky, a long-time nemesis who was sidelined on Saturday due to a wrist injury, on Feb. 19, 2015.

Randomly speaking

• Gudbranson, an occasional pugilist, offered a critique of Crosby’s bout:

“Mixed emotions at the start because I’m used to doing stuff like that. I got a little bit excited then you realized when they start throwing punches, that it’s Sid throwing punches. He did a hell of a job doing it. He’s not the most technical guy but he’s really strong and that helps. He was able to overpower him and do a really good job.”

• Hornqvist on Crosby:

“You know how Sid is. He’s a tough guy and he always steps up for his teammates. That’s why he’s the best captain in the league. He got the guys going after that. We scored a big goal there on the last shift of the (second period). We just kept going. Good effort by everyone and Sid was a big part of this.”

• Kahun and Malkin were the only members of the team – goaltenders excluded – who failed to record a shot on net. Kahun did have two attempts, Malkin none.

• In 12 career regular season games against the Blue Jackets, Guentzel now has 13 points (seven goals, six assists).

• The Penguins have won eight consecutive home games against the Blue Jackets.

• The last time the Penguins scored a touchdown (and extra point) came in a 7-4 road win against the Anaheim Ducks on Jan. 11. Forward Tanner Pearson had two goals in that contest.

Visually speaking

Game summary.

Event summary.

• Highlights:

Follow the Penguins all season long.

Seth Rorabaugh is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Seth by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .

Categories: Sports | Penguins
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