"It’s like, you can play well for 25 minutes, and then one mistake and Crosby and Malkin kill you."
-Dan P. predicting the future.
After two shutout wins, the Jackets went into Pittsburgh to face a squad missing Brooks Orpik and James Neal, but lacking James Wisniewski, Nathan Horton, Marian Gaborik, and Sergei Bobrovsky. On paper, the losses to each roster were fairly balanced, but the news that Pittsburgh was getting Evgeni Malkin back from a two game absence tilted the scales towards the home squad.
To their credit, Columbus went hard on the attack as the game began, testing the shorthanded Penguins D. Marc-Andre Fleury was up to the challenge, though, turning aside a pair of point blank attempts from Brandon Dubinsky and Matt Calvert. In fact, the Jackets carried the play for more than half of the first period, at one point outshooting their hosts 9-1.
When Pittsburgh began to counterattack, it would be Malkin and Sidney Crosby who lead the way, including a pair of power play opportunities that the Columbus PK was forced to shut down, but Curtis McElhinney was equally sharp, and the game would stand scoreless through 20 minutes.
After switching ends of the ice, Pittsburgh seemed to find their defensive game, bottling up the Jackets' offense, and one of their shining stars would break the deadlock.
As the Jackets attempted to take the puck into the Pittsburgh zone, Derek Engelland would reverse the puck back along the boards to Jussi Jokinen, who drew the backchecking defenders along the left side of the ice before sending a perfect pass to a wide open Malkin.
The Russian star drove through Fedor Tyutin like he wasn't there, cut to the center of the ice, and managed to find a gap in C-Mac's five hole coverage after the goaltender had come up and out to challenge his shot, drawing first blood.
That goal would stand through the second period and nearly halfway through the third, when another star player would end up making an impact.
After young Finnish d-man Olli Maata corralled the puck in the neutral zone, he sprung Pascal Dupuis on an attack down the right hand boards and into the Jackets' zone. Tyutin tried to take the passing lane away as Sidney Crosby worked down the ice against Nick Foligno, so Dupuis fired a shot from a sharp angle at the goal, and the rebound would end up getting kicked off Foligno's skate, then took a bounce off of Crosby's leg and into the net, extending the lead to 2-0.
To their credit, the Jackets didn't get discouraged at the second goal. Indeed, they stepped it up, attacking into the Pittsburgh zone on the next shift, and then....well, honestly, all hell broke loose.
Jack Johnson hammered a hard shot from the blue line, which Fleury would glove and hold. Derek MacKenzie was going hard to the net, looking for a rebound, and Simon Despres took exception. That sparked a frank exchange of views between the Jackets' energy line and the Pittsburgh defenders, and when the dust settled...Brandon Dubinsky was being sent off with a game misconduct?
Apparently in the midst of all that fun, Dubinsky and Robert Bortuzzo were in a heated discussion of their own. From what I could tell, Dubi chopped at Bortuzzo with a pretty hard slash, but it's not clear why he got the game misconduct. (Aaron Portzline speculated he may have said something he probably shouldn't have.)
The loss of one of the Jackets' best faceoff men and PP forwards was felt a few minutes later when the Jackets finally drew their sole PP of the game. The reshuffled lineup got some pressure on Fleury, but were unable to generate rebound opportunities or traffic in front of the net, both situations where Dubi might have made a difference.
As the clock ran down, head coach Todd Richards would pull C-Mac for an extra skater, and we were treated to the painful hilarity of Fleury trying for an empty netter. The shot missed wide, and perhaps the hockey guts decided to punish him for his hubris. As Columbus counterattacked on the next shift, Matt Calvert drove into the zone with Mark Letestu. Test Tube went down towards the end boards while Calvert headed for the net, and Letestu was able to drop a quick pass. Calvert snapped his shot past Fleury, and the Jackets had at least broken the shutout bid. They attempted to find one more goal to force OT, but simply did not have enough time to make it happen.
All things considered, it was a loss, but a loss in which the team worked hard, kept fighting, and stood up to the top team in the Division (to say nothing of the Eastern Conference) and gave a strong accounting of themselves. Considering the way previous meetings with the Penguins have gone this season, it was a major improvement, particularly with the missing pieces from the lineup.
About the only true sour note was Dubi's ejection - the team needed him, and if the NHL decides to extend additional discipline, that's a player the team will sorely miss.
The Jackets will be back in action at home tomorrow night against the Devils. If they can play with the same level of effort, the better results won't be far behind.