Experience Matters: Penguins Edge Blue Jackets 4-3

Justin K. Aller

For only the second time in franchise history, the Blue Jackets are playing on ice with the Stanley Cup Playoffs logo emblazoned beneath. What has the club learned in the five years since its last appearance?

As the hours ticked down to the Blue Jackets return to NHL playoff ice, you could find expert support for virtually any point of view you wanted to adopt.  The Globe & Mail in Toronto picked the Blue Jackets.  Other commentators on the radio predicted a Penguins sweep.  Sirius XM NHL Radio had voices in both camps.  Turn on NHL Network, you hear about how the series will be offensively dominated.  Navigate to TSN and the goaltenders dominate.  You get the idea.

Blue Jackets Nation was predictably excited at the return to the post-season, with tons of brave predictions of a foray deep into the playoffs,  "brick by brick" be damned.  However, if you hauled most of these same fans into a secluded room, and vowed total anonymity and confidentiality, most would admit to a solitary, scary wish, embedded deep in their brains:  "Just don't get embarrassed."    Let's see how that sheltered fear was addressed by the guys on the ice.

Are You Talking To Me?

For film fans who remember Taxi Driver, these words, uttered by a very young Robert DeNiro, came to symbolize a defiance of authority -- a refusal to be cowed by convention.  The Blue Jackets came out with very much that attitude -- apparently determined to play their own game.  An early chance by Sidney Crosby went for naught, and then the Blue Jackets settled down for some serious work.

Brandon Dubinsky was the assigned "spy" on Sidney Crosby, appearing on the ice whenever number 87 came over the boards, to the extent possible, given that the Penguins had the last change.  Dubinsky is the perfect choice for that role, as he combines skill, a physical game, and that intangible quality of being able to get under the skin of the opposition.  It appeared to work with Crosby, who responded with passive-aggressive slaps after whistles blew, and continued to work the officials with every stoppage.   Boone Jenner appeared to select Evgeni Malkin as his designated target, with similar impact.

Contrary to popular opinion, Pittsburgh is not averse to physical contact, ranking 9th in the NHL in hits.  In fact, this series is somewhat of an oddity, as it features two playoff teams who rank in the top 10 in hits (Columbus ended the regular season tied for first with Los Angeles.)  The hitting went both ways, and the combination of speed and physical play made it clear that playoff hockey started in high gear.

Lightning struck at the 6:20 mark of the first.  Brandon Dubinsky, momentarily freed from his role as Crosby's shadow, took the puck and deftly stick-handled to the center, toward Mark-Andre Fleury's right.  As the defense stepped up, Dubinsky executed a Spin-O-Rama backhand pass across ice, finding Jack Johnson's stick on the ice.  Rather than take the one-time, Johnson drove the net and parked the puck behind Fleury.  A 1 - 0 lead, on the road, in the playoffs.   Right according to the script.

The alternating physical play and the speedy transitions to offense continued for the balance of the period.  Columbus won the hitting battle, 16-7, but more importantly dominated the face-off circle, 20-12.  Given that edge, the fact that Columbus only held a 13-12 shot advantage was somewhat surprising.  The Blue Jackets showed that they could possess the puck for extended periods in the offensive zone, and had no trouble responding and keeping pace with the Penguins.  However, when you play a team with highly-honed skill, you cannot afford to let up even for a moment, and Pittsburgh provided a vivid reminder of that fact before the period ended.

At the 17:13 mark of the first, Blake Comeau and Artem Anisimov allowed a small gap of space as Jussi Jokinen cruised down the slot.  Evgeni Malkin found that crease, and Jokinen cashed in on the point-blank opportunity.  Tie game, and it was clear that this one was not likely to be a laugher . . .in either direction.

The Blue Jackets responded to that goal with a resounding "You talking to ME?"  Just 30 seconds after the equalizer, Rob Scuderi was whistled for interference, and Columbus had the first power play of the evening.  It took precisely 13 seconds for the Blue Jackets' revitalized power play unit to cash in.  Johnson took the puck at the left point, and moved it to Wisniewski as he entered the zone on the right.  Wisniewski nudged the puck to Ryan Johansen at the right half wall, who fired a low liner that bounced off Fleury's pad.  Boone Jenner then bounced the puck off Fleury, and Johnson's stuff effort on the left caught Fleury's pad.  However, Mark Letestu was also in the neighborhood (four of the five Jackets were below the dots at this point), and quickly deposited the puck past the outgunned Fleury.  While the goal was important in restoring the lead, its greater impact was to forestall any burgeoning momentum from the Penguins.

While the Blue Jackets exited the ice with a 2 - 1 lead, storm clouds appeared on the horizon with just 16 seconds left, when Blake Comeau was called for cross-checking against Brian Gibbons. Coming into this series, there was virtual unanimity that the Blue Jackets would have to play Pittsburgh 5-on-5 to be successful.  The second period would test that thesis.

Stunning Specials

The promised special teams fireworks were quick to emerge in the 2nd, though not quite in the way most predicted.  43 seconds in, Derek MacKenzie challenged the puck at his own blue line on the right, forcing it back to a retreating Kris Letang.  Letang tried to weakly nudge the puck forward, but MacKenzie was having none of it.  He grabbed the puck, out- raced Letang to the crease, and beat Fleury to the high stick side.  3-1 Columbus, and an uncomfortable murmur started to creep through the home crowd.

As terrific as the shorthanded goal was, there was this little matter of a minute remaining on the Penguins' power play.  They used all but nine seconds of it, when Matt Niskanen fired a shot from the right point.  Brandon Sutter was channeling his inner Tomas Homstrom, parked squarely in front of Bobrovsky, when Beau Bennett, cruising in the high slot, managed to get his stick on the puck, deflecting it past Bobrovsky, who had no chance. 3 - 2, thanks to the special teams doom that had been foretold.

Compounding the sin, Jack Johnson took an interference penalty at the 2:09 mark, and ten seconds later the game was tied.  Niskanen again took the puck, this time on the left, and deftly used David Savard as a screen.  His wrister went through Savard's legs, and Bobrovsky could not pick up the puck quickly enough to make the save.  Tie game, and special teams were, in fact, the difference.

The Blue Jackets were unable to take advantage of two power plays later in the period, and no more scoring occurred for either side.  However, Pittsburgh subtly began to tilt the ice in its direction.  They reversed the fortunes in the face-off circle, dominating by a 16-6 margin for the period.  While the Blue Jackets held a 12-10 shot advantage for the period, the Penguins were gaining the lion's share of possession time, and the quality of their chances seemed to improve.  Columbus had some prime chances themselves, including a breakaway by Matt Calvert that ended with a poke check by Fleury.

This one would go to the third, all tied.  Which side would blink?

Experience Matters

While there's a fair amount of individual playoff experience among the Columbus players, there is no collective playoff experience as a cohesive team.  Not so in Pittsburgh, where playoffs have become view as a birthright in recent years. The third period showed that difference.  The Penguins again dominated the face-off circle, providing possession time, and slowly, persistently increased the pressure. Conversely, the Blue Jackets seemed to have run out of the emotional adrenaline that gave them extra jump in the first, and now were struggling to find focus.  The forecheck was shallower and less aggressive.  The exit passes were imprecise and ill-timed.  Entries into the zone were relegated to the dump and chase variety, rather than a cohesive attack.  More problematic were the turnovers at the blue lines.  While Bobrovsky saved a couple of opportunities created by these gifts, it was another such turnover that would sink Columbus this night.

Boone Jenner attacked down the left wing boards, but his chip-in attempt was deflected the other way, creating a two-on-one rush for Sutter, bringing the puck up the right wing, and Bennett, trailing down the middle.  In between was Fedor Tyutin, who went down to the ice to prevent the pass.  Sutter instead took the shot, and the puck found its way under Bobrovsky's right arm for the winning goal.  It was a shot that Bobrovsky saves 99 times out of 100, but Tyutin's flop and Bennett's charge down the crease undoubtedly divided his attention.

From that point, the Penguins relied upon their experience in shutting down passing lanes, keeping the puck in their hands, and using their familiarity with each other to be in precisely the right place at the right time.  Columbus could only muster nine shots in the final frame, compared to ten for the Penguins, which is just not good enough in the playoffs.  Game 1 goes to the home team.

The Takeaways

This was a learning experience for a young Blue Jackets club.  They learned that they cannot rely on pure emotion over the course of three periods.  They learned that attention to detail needs to last for sixty minutes.  They learned just how tight the tolerances are against a skilled club with tons of playoff experience.  They learned -- the hard way -- that you simply cannot allow Pittsburgh to go on the power play.

On the positive side, the club also learned that it can compete with the Penguins at every level, under the glaring light of the playoffs, in an overtly hostile environment.  Game two should see an energetic, but more focused effort, and potentially could signal the return of Nick Foligno and R.J. Umberger.   Jared Boll simply cannot keep up at this level.  That limited him to under six minutes of ice time, and Corey Tropp had less than seven.  With the intensity of these games, Todd Richards needs to be able to truly roll four lines, and that did not happen tonight.

The vaunted showdown in goal really did not materialize.  Both goalies were good . . .but not great.  Fleury looked shaky, particularly early, and was clearly agitated after MacKenzie's shorty.  He made some nice saves down the stretch to seal the victory.  The same could be said for Bobrovsky, who made some world class saves in the second and third to keep the game close. Still, the game winner is one he would want back, truth be told.  It's still a major story line, however, as Bobrovsky has shown the ability to forget and come out more determined the next game.  Fleury is an unknown, and how he reacts mentally will be an interesting case study.

Both sides managed to neutralize the offensive stars of the other squad tonight, which will be another theme going forward.  The Johnson, MacKenzie, Letestu scoring line is not one you would have likely predicted coming in, and the fact that both Crosby and  Chris Kunitz were shut out would likely have been a choice bet a couple of days ago.  It's assumed that Pittsburgh is deep enough to provide secondary scoring , but the fact that Columbus could compete without Johansen, Atkinson, Calvert, Anisimov or Dubinsky tallying goals is a actually a positive.  Going forward, Calvert and Atkinson are going to have to start converting their chances, multiplying the things the the Pittsburgh defense needs to worry about.

During the regular season, the Blue Jackets held a slight edge over the Penguins in the Goals For/Goals Against ratio at 5-on-5, and Columbus demonstrated again tonight that it can hang with  ---  and better -- the Penguins at even strength. That  has to be exploited and driven home on Saturday and beyond.  Similarly, the Blue Jackets have to use controlled aggression, rather than blind emotion, when physically challenging the Penguins.  While getting under their skin is a good strategy, Dubinsky and others came perilously close to crossing the line tonight, and frequently appeared to focus more on the hit than changing the possession of the puck -- which is the ultimate determining factor of a hit, after all.  Puck awareness needs to be paramount.

The standouts in this one include Jenner, Dubinsky, Letestu, MacKenzie, Murray and Johnson.  Murray looked as cool as a cucumber in his NHL playoff debut, and had a couple of prime scoring chances that just missed.  Johnson played one of his better games of the season, while the others all played with speed, tenacity and brought a physical presence to the ice.

The Blue Jackets have nothing to hang their heads about.  A bounce or two and this one goes the other way.  Control the turnovers, eliminate the penalties, and throttle down the emotional adrenaline just a bit, and the balance of the series will be something to experience.  This was a disappointing result, but it was a helluva hockey game.  The Blue Jackets earned their slot here, and that same work ethic will pay off as the series progresses.   Two days off to recharge the batteries and fine-tune the machine.  I suspect Saturday will be different.   What?  You talking to me?

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