By Mike Majeski
A remarkable pattern has developed in the first-round series between the Blue Jackets and the Penguins. In all four games, both teams have twice held 3-1 leads -- Columbus in Games 1 and 3; Pittsburgh in Games 2 and 4 -- only to end up losing 4-3. Columbus center Brandon Dubinsky tied Game 4 with 24 seconds left in regulation and Nick Foligno delivered the winning goal 2:49 into overtime as the Penguins saw their 3-0 first-period advantage turn into a disheartening defeat on Wednesday night. A series they were supposed to win easily is suddenly knotted at two games apiece.
It was shades of last year when the Stanley Cup hopeful Penguins had all kinds of trouble putting the underdog New York Islanders away.
For all its talent, Pittsburgh has underachieved in recent postseasons and is now in danger of making its third first-round exit in the last four years. On Wednesday night, many of the hallmarks of the Penguins' past playoff failures were present: the shaky goaltending by Marc-Andre Fleury; the inconsistency of their defensemen; and the lack of production from stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, who combined for just one assist. There is greatness on this roster, but this is not a great team. At this point, it seems unlikely that the Penguins can win the Stanley Cup even if they survive the first round.
A few observations from an enervating Game 4:
• A big mistake ruined what was an otherwise strong night for Fleury, who made 42 saves, and there's no telling what effect the gaffe will have on a goalie who has worked with a sports psychologist to get himself back in the right frame of mind for this kind of situation. His latest potential crusher came in the waning moments of regulation when the puck bounced over Fleury's stick as he was attempting make a play behind his net. Columbus forward Ryan Johansen backhanded it out front to Dubinsky, who fired it past the diving Fleury with just 24 seconds left. It was the latest in a string of postseason blunders since the Penguins' 2009 Stanley Cup championship that has worn away Pittsburgh's confidence in Fleury's abilities. He continued to look shaky in the overtime period, surrendering a soft game-winning goal to Foligno on a wrist shot from just inside the blue line.
• The Blue Jackets and their goalie, Sergei Bobrovsky, looked terrible early in the first period, allowing three goals on the Penguins' first nine shots, including two in 33 seconds. A turnover by Jackets defenseman James Wisniewski on an early Columbus power play led to Pittsburgh's first tally -- the Pens' second short-handed goal of the series. Columbus eventually settled down and actually finished the first period ahead in the shot count, 14-11.
• James Neal gaveth and James Neal tooketh away. After scoring Pittsburgh's third goal, the Penguins winger negated a Penguins power play by taking an interference penalty at 15:15 of the first period. Handed an opportunity to get back in the game, the Jackets cashed in when Mark Letestu's shot ricocheted off Boone Jenner and plopped behind Fleury to cut Pittsburgh's lead to 3-1. An omen of what was to come.
• The speedy Blue Jackets seized the momentum in the second period with their aggressive forecheck, something for which the frustrated Penguins had no answer. A lack of discipline plagued the Pens when they took three straight penalties including a double minor that became a 5-on-3 for Columbus. Johansen scored on the two-man advantage, slicing Pittsburgh's lead to 3-2. The Jackets outshot the Penguins 18-6 in that frame and you could feel the tide turning. “From the second period on, we really started to take it to them,” Columbus forward R.J. Umberger said after the game.
• So can the Penguins pull themselves together and prevail as they did against the Islanders last spring? “We don’t have a choice,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “We let another one slip away. We’re making it harder on ourselves than we need to, but I don’t think we need to pout about it now.”
The Blue Jackets and the Penguins meet in Game 5 on April 26 in Pittsburgh at 7 p.m. ET.