Breathe, Penguins fans.
It sure looked like Evgeni Malkin was tuned in and would single-handedly breeze Pittsburgh past Columbus to the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. After a long, back-and-forth excite-fest between the two teams, Malkin opened Game 6 with two first period goals and another in the second. It was 4-0 Penguins with less than half of the third period left and the series was winding down with a whimper.
But this year’s playoffs? Anything but predictable.
First, came Fedor Tyutin.
This one was shorthanded and started the snarky, sarcastic “uh-oh” reactions, as if a four-goal meltdown was actually going to happen. To this point, the Penguins were having a strong game and allowing one goal late in the third period of a blowout is no sin. The Penguins were still on their way to a decisive series clincher, where Malkin had got on the board with a hat trick and Fleury was posting a calm effort.
They could head into Round 2 against Philadelphia or New York on a confident note.
Then came Artem Anisimov on the power play.
No stopping that shot.
OK, so maybe at this point the Penguins are missing Brandon Sutter, who did his best to play the role of former Penguins third line center Jordan Staal in this series. Sutter, who had an uncharacteristic two assists and three goals – including one in Game 6 – against Columbus, left the game in the second and did not return in the third with a lower body injury. Joe Vitale also left the game after a knee-on-knee collision with Blake Comeau, so the Pens were now down two centers.
But no problem, right? Malkin was showing his 'A' game and Crosby still had to do some scoring this series. Besides, there were only six minutes left now.
At 4:47, Nick Foligno everybody:
The Blue Jackets had already come back from a three-goal deficit to win in OT this series, and all of a sudden those “uh-oh” reactions after the first goal became prophetic. The Penguins were falling apart and with Marc-Andre Fleury’s reputation as a meltdown goalie, Columbus was somehow still alive.
But this wasn't all on Fleury, whose defense imploded around him. And unfortunately for Blue Jackets fans, this third goal was as far as the comeback went. The four-goal recovery was not to be and it’s another first round exit for the franchise.
What a way to go and what a series to go in, though. Before this matchup, the Blue Jackets were still a largely unknown and underappreciated group from the outside, but leave this season a recognized rising danger in the East. The fans are charged and a nascent base is budding again.
The trick is to keep it going and not regress like last year’s Islanders…or even the 2009 Blue Jackets. That team also excited the Columbus market, but didn’t win 40 games again until this season.
So congratulations to the Blue Jackets for giving us and their fans such an eye-opening series that grabbed and held our attention to the very last gasp.
But, what's next?