By Sarah Kwak
Thanks to an early hat trick by center Evgeni Malkin, the Pittsburgh Penguins had just enough to once and for all stave off the stubborn Columbus Blue Jackets. Say what you want about them, but the pesky Jackets sure do have a knack for making things interesting.
Facing elimination, down by four goals and going on 97 minutes without scoring, Columbus could have easily gotten down, given up and skated off with a whimper against the outskilled Penguins. But, as we’ve all learned, that is just not the Blue Jacket way. No, instead, they scored three goals in less than five minutes in the final half of the third period, pushing Pittsburgh right up to the point of panic. Skating six attackers for the final two minutes, no one would really have been surprised if the puck somehow made it past Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. But in the end, it didn’t, and Columbus fell just short, as the Penguins captured their first-round series with a 4-3 Game 6 win on Monday night.
Some observations and thoughts from the game:
• When the Penguins are playing well, they look unstoppable. For the first two periods on Monday night, they looked like a championship caliber team, outskating, outmuscling and outworking perhaps the hardest-working team in the league. Their offense was clicking, and their defense was making smart decisions with the puck. Their goaltending even looked solid. But then they sat back and gave an inch to Columbus, a team that will pounce on every opportunity. And when Pittsburgh is caught on its heels, passive and playing poorly, the Penguins look like paper tigers. Their forwards are weak on the puck, their defense muddled. Goaltending turns back into a thorn. They had enough to take down the Jackets, but against the New York Rangers or Philadelphia Flyers in the next round, Pittsburgh will need to channel its best in order to advance.
• The Penguins played their best hockey of the series on Monday night, particularly in the first two periods. It was then that Malkin shared most of his ice time with captain Sidney Crosby. Normally, they’re separated onto two lines to give opponents matchup headaches, a pick-your-poison dilemma. And Penguins coach Dan Bylsma often treats putting his two superstars out together like a nuclear option, but on Monday night, that was just the explosive move the Pens needed to put the Jackets away. Skating with Chris Kunitz, Crosby and Malkin dazzled from the start, creating two goals in their first five shifts together. Malkin scored both of them with his wicked wrister, beating goalie Sergei Bobrovsky. His second goal, a power play tally from the slot at 13:13 in the first period, a shot that pinged off the crossbar and in, was the kind of awe-inspiring shot that Malkin can make look routine. It's not that he wasn’t productive against Columbus — he had four assists in five games — but those goals have to be a big boost of confidence for a player who had not scored in his last nine playoff games, dating back to last spring’s Eastern Conference Final.
• Crosby, meanwhile, was goalless in this series and hasn’t scored in the playoffs since Game 4 against Ottawa last May. But again, a dearth of flashing red lights doesn’t mean the Penguins captain hasn’t been productive. He had tough matchups in this series, stalked by Columbus defenseman Jack Johnson and center Brandon Dubinsky, but still Crosby finds ways to separate himself or separate others. Take Pittsburgh’s first goal of the game: Though Crosby wasn't credited with an assist, he created the tally by working Blue Jackets defenseman Nick Schultz around the boards. So strong on the puck, Crosby is the kind of talent that draws backup assistance. Kunitz got the puck free to set up Malkin for the goal, but only because Blue Jackets Cam Atkinson, Dubinsky and Schultz were busy trying to neutralize Crosby.
• Pittsburgh walked out with the win and advanced to the second round, but not unscathed. Bottom-six center Joe Vitale went knee-first into Blue Jackets winger Blake Comeau early in the third, but the bigger cause for worry is Brandon Sutter, who fell awkwardly into the dashers midway through the second. Sutter, who scored the Game 1 winner, has been terrific for Pittsburgh, seeing his minutes grow from 13-and-change to 17-plus in Games 4 and 5. He finished the series with five points, including his third goal of the postseason early in the second period. A stalwart defensive forward, Sutter has enough offensive upside to allow Bylsma to stack his deck with Crosby and Malkin together. If he’s out for any period of time, it could make “going nuclear” more difficult for Pittsburgh. • Columbus may have opened some eyes around the league during these past 12 days, showing a lot of fight against a much more skilled team and taking Pittsburgh to six. They mounted comeback after comeback, even closing a 4-0 lead to 4-3 in the end. But to create believers, they’ll have to treat this as the start, not the apex. Look at the Islanders, who also took Pittsburgh to six games in the first round last spring. They followed that up by finishing 14th in the East this season. A few things, however, are working in Columbus’s favor, starting with their front office. In the hands of President of Hockey Operations John Davidson, who laid the groundwork for St. Louis’ turnaround, and savvy general manager Jarmo Kekelainen, also formerly of the Blues’ front office, the Blue Jackets, unlike the Islanders, have capable leadership to build a competitive team. And on the ice, they have some rugged veteran experience in defenseman Fedor Tyutin, Jack Johnson and Dubinsky, and some promising young talent—namely Atkinson, Matt Calvert and 2010 first-rounder Ryan Johansen, who led the team with 33 goals and 63 points this season. There is certainly some promise there, and mismanagement won’t be an issue in Columbus.