By Sarah Kwak
No two-goal lead is safe in these playoffs, people, particularly in the first-round series between the Penguins and the Blue Jackets. For the third straight game, the team that built an early two-goal advantage saw their lead slip away late. On Monday night in Game 3, it was Columbus, which hoped to follow up its first postseason win with its first playoff win at home.
Two goals in the first three-and-a-half minutes of the game were a promising start. But in final two seconds of the second period, Pittsburgh broke through when backliner Brooks Orpik scored. A Jackets tally by Cam Atkinson iless than two minutes into the third period kept hope alive for the home crowd, but a wacky stretch midway through the period made sure the jinx of the two-goal lead lived on. On three consecutive shots in two minutes and 13 seconds the Penguins rattled Blue Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, scoring three unanswered goals to come back and win 4-3.
Some more thoughts and observations from Monday night’s game:
• Pittsburgh could not have gotten off to a worse start. Sloppy play in transition and some iffy goaltending opened the door wide for Columbus. If you make enough turnovers in the neutral zone or high in the offensive zone, your opponent is going to make you pay. And that’s what the Blue Jackets have done to the Pens. Columbus is opportunistic, fast and aggressive. The Jackets can spin a neutral zone turnover into an odd-man rush in a flash, and if Pittsburgh goalie Marc-Andre Fleury lets self-doubt creep into his mind, which he is prone to do, those odd-man rushes will turn into goals. What’s more, Columbus is a feisty and physical group, who forecheck relentlessly along the boards. And the Penguins, particularly early on in Game 3, were uncharacteristically soft on the puck. They weren’t matching the Blue Jackets' hunger for 50-50 battles. Pittsburgh will need a better start in Game 4.
• The Penguins regained their footing after those two early Columbus goals thanks to a couple of power plays that helped settle things down. And this is where the Blue Jackets showed their vulnerability. With a two-goal lead, they seemed to be carried away by their momentum and the excitement, and they took three penalties in the first period. Pittsburgh wasn’t able to convert on any of them, but taking penalties when facing the league’s best power play is playing with fire. Columbus gave the Penguins three more power plays in the game, including an avoidable unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Nick Foligno, who sprayed Fleury with ice in front of the net in the second period, and a frustration slash by James Wisniewski late in the third. The only positive from all those minors might be that the Blue Jackets' penalty kill, though mediocre all season, was up to the challenge, silencing Pittsburgh’s power play, which went 0-for-6.
• A Brief Jack Johnson Appreciation Note: When the 27-year-old Columbus defenseman was left off the Team USA for the Sochi Games, it didn’t come as a huge surprise. His omission didn’t garner as much of an outcry as, say, the snubs of Senators winger Bobby Ryan and Coyotes defenseman Keith Yandle. But Johnson, a silver medal winner in 2010 and a staple on U.S. world championship teams, seems to be taking this opportunity to remind everyone that he is still a world-class defenseman. With home ice and the last change, Johnson played the part of Sidney Crosby’s shadow to great effect on Monday night, limiting the star’s chances. Johnson also scored his third goal of the postseason, knocking in a rebound to put the Blue Jackets up 2-0 just 3:18 in. And though he was on the ice for Lee Stempniak’s game-tying goal, he still finished the game with a plus-one rating. A lot is being made of the lack of production of the Penguins’ stars, specifically the goalless Crosby. Well, Johnson -- with much help up front from center Brandon Dubinsky -- is a big reason for Crosby's silence.
• It was another tough night for Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang, who was playing in just his sixth game back after suffering a mild stroke in January. He had four points in the last three games of the regular season, but in the postseason, he hasn’t looked up to speed. In Game 3, he was again making poor reads and uncharacteristically sloppy passes, and he was also taking untimely penalties. As Dubinsky blew past him and got inside position to set up Atkinson’s goal early in the third, Letang looked completely exposed and nothing at all like the Norris-caliber defenseman he had been just one season ago.
• In November 2011, the Penguins traded center Mark Letestu to Columbus for a fourth-round draft pick. In return, Pittsburgh is now being dominated on the dot. In the last two games, Letestu has won 19 of 23 face-offs, and he is 4-for-4 against Crosby, who won 52 percent of his draws during the season. All four of those face-off wins were on critical draws in the Columbus zone.