For any and all talk of whether the Blue Jackets would truly demonstrate a "home ice" advantage, given how regular season games against Pittsburgh have gone at Nationwide, it was clear from the outset that this crowd was not going to be one of those "home away from home" games for the Penguins.
And, very soon after the drop of the puck, the Jackets gave the crowd plenty of reason to cheer, scoring two goals in the first 3:18 of the game. But it was the Penguins, capitalizing on some tremendous puck luck, who iced this game in the third period.
Columbus couldn't have asked for a better start, as they staked themselves to an early 2-0 lead with goals that both came on fat, fat rebounds from Marc-Andre Fleury. Columbus's top line got them on the board just 1:38 into the contest. Ryan Johansen brought the puck into the Penguins' zone on the right side, dropping it to Jack Skille as Boone Jenner crashed to the net. Skille loaded up a shot that Fleury saved, but in what would be an early theme, the rebound shot right to an unchecked Jenner who beat the Penguins' netminder cleanly via the five-hole.
Just like that, it was 1-0, and the crowd was ALIVE.
Not even two minutes later, it would again be the Jackets' effort and the Penguins' inability to clear a rebound that made it 2-0. Brandon Dubinsky worked behind the net, and was taken down off the puck. A deft save by a pinching David Savard got it back to Dubinsky, who tried a wrap-around to Fleury's right. The rebound was in front, and Matt Calvert was unable to get a stick on it. It caromed out to Jack Johnson, pinching in unguarded, who hammered it past Fleury for a two-goal lead just 3:18 into the period.
BEDLAM. There's no other way to put it.
Forced to call their timeout that quickly, the Penguins did their best to regroup, and there was still a LOT of hockey left to be played. The Jackets tried to make sure the Penguins felt every second of it.
Playoff games tend to be games in which the third period loomed huge, and this one was obviously no exception. However, throughout the first and second periods, the Jackets passed up no opportunity to hit anything in a white sweater, going into the second intermission with a 41-26 advantage in hits. It cost them at times, as they again had problems staying out of the penalty box (despite some--let's call it--uneven officiating at times). They hit. They killed penalties. They kept pucks to the sides and kept the crease clear. And Bob was Bob. Bobrovsky stoned many chances through the first two periods.
As the second period started, it was clear that the next goal was going to be huge. It almost came at a great many times for both teams. The Jackets killed five penalties in the first 40 minutes, but equal were the Pens who killed three (one each was truncated by overlapping minors). The Penguins used those extra Power Plays to pad a lead on the shot clock of 26-15 through two periods.
The teams traded Power Plays in the first five minutes of the second, but neither team could really get much of value going. In addition, Bob was huge on a James Neal break-away after a Derek MacKenzie turnover in the neutral zone, and it's fair to say Bob was the early difference in the second. With 11:31 left in that frame, the Penguins held a 21-8 shots advantage. That theme would continue.
Not long after that, Columbus got their best chance to extend their lead, with a Rob Scuderi interference penalty resulting in a Power Play that held the zone for almost the entire 2:00. Fleury made some big saves, including gathering a loose puck with his leg while Dubinsky camped in front trying to poke it home. Ryan Murray also found Mark Letestu with a cross-ice pass to the doorstep, but Test Tube could not get the one-timer past Fleury.
Despite not getting that elusive third goal, for the first 39 minutes and 58 seconds, the Jackets were completely frustrating the Penguins while counterpunching with their forecheck to keep some pressure on.
It was those final two seconds of the second period that cast a long shadow over that intermission, as Brooks Orpik corralled a loose puck in the high slot, faked around a diving Blue Jacket, and ripped a wrister past Bob under his right arm. 1.8 showed on the clock, and what looked like a 2-0 lead was suddenly 2-1.
"We probably could have managed the puck better, especially with just seconds left on the clock," Richards said. "You just keep it in the piles and eat it. It's surprising when you see Bob make all these great saves, and by his reaction it looked like that was one he wanted back.
"I didn't feel it was [a] devastating [goal]," the coach continued. "The good thing is that it happened late in the period, and you're able to get the team together and discuss it and get the team back on track in between periods. I thought we were OK."
That response in the final frame would be the difference, and it looked early like the Jackets might be the ones to make the final statement. The Penguins, however, had other ideas.
Even with the downer goal to end the second, Columbus came right back in the third and pushed their lead back to two. Dubinsky worked his way through the neutral zone and beat a couple of Penguins as he worked into the zone deep on the right side. He threw a back-hander toward the net, and as it was going by Cam Atkinson was there to redirect it into the net just 1:04 into the third.
When I typed that it was BEDLAM after the 2-0 goal, I really didn't quite capture the sentiment. When the 3-1 goal went in, absolute craziness erupted in the Nationwide Arena crowd. Pittsburgh was dominating the stats of the game, but Columbus held a 3-1 lead with just 19 minutes to play.
Ugh. 3-1 leads. Something about them in this series, man.
"You obviously don't want a 3-1 lead," coach Todd Richards joked. "I can't put my finger on exactly what it is. It maybe creates a little more desperation in the team that's trailing."
This one would prove no different.
Columbus missed a golden chance to push the lead to three, as Nick Foligno and R.J. Umberger almost cashed in a beautiful play in front, with Foligno beating his man around the side and flinging the puck to the crease. Umberger redirected it as he was being ridden off the play, and the puck trickled just wide. That would prove costly.
You could--rightly--argue that one of the hallmarks of this series has been the fact that Columbus has kept the Penguins "stars" in check. But, while obviously you'd rather keep Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin off the score sheet, the Penguins' secondary guys got it done in this one. And, it happened fast.
At the 5:53 mark, a Paul Martin point shot was redirected into the net from in front by Brandon Sutter. It was one of those seeing-eye bounces that your goal-tender can't do much about. Sadly, for Columbus, it did not end there. The Penguins would tie it just 1:10 later, as Lee Stempniak and Chris Kunitz would play a nifty game of give and go through the neutral zone, which cut Stempniak in alone. He roofed it over Bob's glove.
For the first time, we heard some Pittsburgh fans voicing their pleasure. It turned my stomach, I tell ya.
If only that were it and we were settling in for another drag-out overtime affair. Another crazy bounce would seal it, as an Olli Maatta point shot was redirected in the slot by Jussi Jokinen, and it went off James Wisniewski's skate high into the net past Bob at the 8:06 mark.
2:13. Game over.
"Two seeing-eye shots from the point, and the one time through the neutral zone--Stempniak beat me through the neutral zone, they got an odd-man rush, and he made a good shot. It was three quick plays, and it cost us the game," Dubinsky said.
Bob told me afterward that he saw the Orpik and Stempniak goals, but the other two he basically could do nothing on. Tough break for him, as I thought he played a magnificent game otherwise. "I thought Sergei was great," Richards said. "I think he was the reason why we were still in it to the end. Two out of the [last] three going off of guys standing off the side of the net, it's unfortunate for him."
At that point, shots were 37-16 in favor of Pittsburgh, and you just didn't feel like the Jackets were going to be able to kick-start another late rally. That's not to say they didn't get their chance, when Kris Letang--who is having a GOD AWFUL series and is set to start an eight-year $58 million contract--got the gate for tripping Jenner. Columbus was unable to sustain any pressure, and except for one threat where Jenner was able to redirect a shot in front of the net and force a rebound right there on the doorstep--only to have had his stick break on the redirect rendering him unable to put the puck into the net--the PP went with a whimper.
At 16:02, Wisniewski took a slashing call trying to stop Malkin on a break-away, and it robbed the Jackets of two valuable minutes to mount a charge. They pulled Bob late, but couldn't do anything to get the game tied.
Final Score - 4-3 Penguins
- Boone Jenner - This kid is a rookie. He's going to be something special, people. A goal on three shots, another "almost" on that late Power Play, and four hits (of the team's 65 hits... yowza).
- Brandon Dubinsky - Duby is proving his worth in this series, setting up two of the three goals and playing a relentless style. He does get some flak for losing Stempniak on that game-tying goal in the third, but he's been arguably the Jackets' best player in this series with four assists and winning 51.6% of his draws, often going up against Crosby and Malkin.
- Jack Johnson - we rip on Johnson during the regular season--rightly often times--but his game is built for the playoffs. His offensive instincts were on display again tonight, as he notched his team-leading third goal in the series by pinching at the exact right moment and burying a rebound as no one checked him.
- The Crowd - You guys were awesome.
- The PK - They killed all six Penguins' Power Plays (one was very truncated), though the effects of that work might have bled into the 5-on-5 game. Still, a great effort by the entire unit tonight, as they've run their series PK to 82.4%.
Bottom of the Barrel
- Penalties - I'm not going to get into the debate about the actual calls themselves. Todd Richards wouldn't comment during the post-game, which should tell you something about how he felt. That said, for the love of God man, stay out of the box. The Pens' Power Play didn't score in this one, but killing six penalties wears out your players and gives the Pens something to build on. "[The Penguins] are able to create some momentum," Richards said. "They're a skilled group. They're going to generate some chances, and they're able to feed on that. What it does for us is that I'm relying on maybe six forwards up front to do the bulk of the killing, and what you're doing is spending a lot of energy chasing them around the ice. The other guys end up sitting on the bench. You want to get into rolling four lines and keeping everybody involved in the game, and penalties don't allow you to do that."
- Puck Luck - Two of those goals were complete garbage. But, those are the goals that win playoff games.
- 3-1 Leads Turning Into 4-3 Losses - Seriously, WTF?
- Unrequited Love - The crowd deserved better tonight. They were amazing, and to a man in the dressing room afterward the players noticed.