This just in . . .the Columbus Blue Jackets and Pittsburgh Penguins do not care for each other. At all. Combine lingering resentments with a hot Blue Jackets team and a Penguins squad uncharacteristically fighting for playoff positioning, and you have all of the ingredients for a barn burner. Add a Saturday afternoon start for a wide television audience, and the intensity is kicked up another notch. This one did not disappoint -- on any score. Strap in, we might be here a while.
Period One -- Settling In
The assembled throng of 18,513 at Nationwide Arena included the usual contingent of Penguins faithful, and they were in good voice early. Todd Richards elected to grant young forward Marko Dano a provisional pardon for whatever sin landed him in the Press Box last game. Jared Boll assumed that position for this one, though Dano was relegated to the fourth line for the first half of the game. I use "relegated"a bit advisedly, since a fourth line of Dano, Letestu and Calvert is light years ahead of any fourth line combination the Blue Jackets have fielded in recent memory. However, Dano soon found his way back to his more recently familiar spot with Alexander Wennberg and Scott Hartnell.
Somewhat surprisingly, the Penguins went with Marc-Andre Fleury in net. He finished the pre-game warmups in net -- usually signaling that he'll be sitting -- but he took the ice to start the game. This was suggestive of just how badly the Penguins are looking for wins these days -- as they face arch-rival Philadelphia tomorrow.
This one got off to a fast start -- with both clubs skating extremely well and hard. The Blue Jackets had some prime early opportunities, but appeared to be gripping their sticks a bit tightly, sending most of their chances high. The Penguins had a prime early chance when Daniel Winnik got free for a breakaway, which Sergei Bobrovsky denied . . . twice. Kevin Connauton was whistled for hooking on the play, however, giving the Penguins an early man advantage. Pittsburgh created lots of pressure and came close, but could not crack Bobrovsky,
After a spirited stint of back and forth chances, the Penguins broke through first. After Brandon Dubinsky lost the puck behind the net, Bobrovksy negated the ensuing chance, and the puck moved seemingly harmlessly out to the boards to Bobrovsky's left. The Blue Jackets started to vacate the zone, but Ian Cole had other ideas. He charged the puck, and got it to the middle, where Patric Hornqvist, David Perron and Sidney Crosby were all waiting, with nary a blue sweater in evidence. Hornqvist tapped the puck to Crosby, who does not usually miss from point blank range. 1 - 0 Penguins, with Hornqvist and Cole picking up the helpers.
The Blue Jackets seemingly were given a gift just twenty seconds later, when Steve Downie -- for whom penalty boxes around the league are named -- was called for leveling Bobrovsky in the crease. (This was a consistent theme for the afternoon, but with horrifically inconsistent responses from the officials.) Columbus showed good movement on the ensuing power play, and had some decent chances, but Fleury was up to the task. A reprise of the power play when the Penguins were whistled for too many men on the ice produced no results, and the Blue Jackets ended the period on the PK, when Brandon Dubinsky was whistled for tripping. The Blue Jackets' PK unit squelched that chance for the remainder of the period, and went off with a one goal deficit.
This one calmed down after the teams combined for 21 shots in the first 11 minutes of play, with Pittsburgh holding the shooting edge of 15 - 12 at the end of the frame. Still, Columbus played a strong period, and but for a momentary breakdown, would have gone to the locker room in a scoreless tie. Besides, the Blue Jackets are used to coming from behind . . . right?
Period Two -- Setting Up
During last season's playoff match-up, the specter of the "Two Goal Lead" reached near-legendary status, as two goal leads were vanquished as quickly as they were established. Columbus apparently viewed that as a good model to follow, after battling Pittsburgh to a standoff for the first half of the period.
At the 11:07 mark, Brandon Sutter brought the puck down the left wing, then fed it to the center of the ice, while continuing toward the goal. Steve Downie, in the meantime, aggressively moved into the blue paint again, this time challenged by Jack Johnson. Ian Cole moved the puck back to Sutter on the left, who skated in to challenge Bobrovsky. As Bobrovsky tried to move to his right to counter, Downie appeared to push Johnson back into the crease, causing Johnson's skate to catch Bobrovsky's, spinning Bobrovsky around, facing away from the play. He never saw Sutter's ensuing shot, which found the net.
Bobrovsky was seething, and the officials met briefly to consider the Columbus protest, but the goal stood. So, the stage was set. Two goal deficit. Lingering resentment over some marginally cheap shots at the goalie and official countenance of that behavior. You really don't want to get the Blue Jackets mad right now, and that is exactly what they were at this point in the proceedings.
Just five minutes later, the Blue Jackets decided that turnabout was fair play, and broke through. After Pittsburgh negated a chance orchestrated by the Dubinsky -- Anisimov -- Foligno line, they began to exit the zone at pace. Foligno, however, was having none of it, as he put his stick on the ice near the blue line, denying the exit, and turning the play the other way. Anisimov tipped it ahead to Dubinsky, who then fed Foligno right in front. Foligno tapped the puck past Fleury in one motion, then catapulted over Fleury, joining the puck in the net. Dubinsky and Anisimov had the helpers. It was now a one-goal game, The Fifth Line was in full voice, and the Penguins fans were in a disquieted silence, as if their memories had been taken back to an unpleasant past.
Right after Foligno's tally, I put out the following tweet -- intended only half in jest:
1st one is always toughest against Fleury. Next six will be easier. #CBJ— Jeff Little (@OhioHockeyDog) April 4, 2015
Little did I know that the crack in the dam had just begun to seep.
Just two minutes later, the energized Blue Jackets again stormed the offensive zone, with the fourth line doing the honors this time. Mark Letestu -- again doing the happy dance for having some line mates with actual skill -- brought the puck hard down the left wing, then pulled up and zipped a pass to Marko Dano, who was on a beeline toward the right post. Dano's effort was stymied, but it rattled Fleury, as the puck caromed out to Matt Calvert right in front. As Fleury dove to cover the shot, Calvert went top shelf . . . and hit the post. However, he kept after the puck, tracking it down to Fleury's left. Fleury was still on the ice, and Calvert threaded a backhand through a forest of legs, finding pay dirt and evening the score. Bedlam ensued, and the roar as the clubs left the ice for the period break was deafening. It would have been impossible for those watching on national TV to determine which club was fighting for a playoff life.
Shots were even at 10 - 10 for the period, which was fairly representative of the optics, as Pittsburgh had the better of the early going, while the ice tilted sharply toward Columbus in the last half of the period. Amazingly, no penalties were called in the second, despite more than the usual amount of scrums. The Penguins were constantly lobbying the officials, with Crosby and others finding something to address after virtually every whistle. The pace of chatter increased as the score became knotted, perhaps suggesting that the psyche was just a tad fragile. The final frame would tell the tale.
Period Three -- The Sting
One of the consistent themes from last year's playoff club through today has been the club's ability -- when healthy -- to improve as the game went along. Sure, there were plenty of third period leads blown this season when they were injury hampered, but when sporting anything resembling a full line-up, these guys find a way to put the pedal to the metal in the third, and today was the perfect example of that phenomenon.
The Blue Jackets came out skating like they were on a Mission from God, while the Penguins suddenly appeared more tentative and reactive. Shots for the period were 13 -11 in favor of Columbus, but visually it did not appear that close. The water started to flow through the dam in earnest at the 6:46 mark, and it again came as the Penguins were attempting to exit the zone. This time, Derrick Pouliot had just entered the neutral zone with the puck, when Foligno picked his pocket from behind, nudging the puck to Dubinsky. Dubinsky came in hard down the right, while Foligno trailed to the left. Using the pass threat as a decoy, Dubinsky unleashed a wrister, which Fleury managed to save, but surrendered a meaty rebound. Foligno was only too happy to cash in the opportunity presented, and the Blue Jackets had the lead, 3 - 2. Dubinsky earned the lone assist on the play.
Less than three minutes later, the Blue Jackets would strike again -- this time in rather bizarre fashion. The Hartnell - Dano - Wennberg line were creating havoc in front of Fleury, with Dano putting a shot on goal, which Fleury stopped. From the bench side of the ice, it appeared that Fleury had frozen the puck, but in fact he hadn't. The puck was sitting adjacent to Fleury's leg and arm, which did not escape the notice of either the referee or Scott Hartnell. Hartnell swept in, put the blade on the puck, and a combination of that effort and Fleury's arm movement nudged the puck across the line. The referee emphatically signaled a good goal, and Sidney Crosby went ballistic. His entreaties when for naught, however, as the officials did not so much as discuss the issue. 4- 2 Blue Jackets, with Dano and Alexander Wennberg credited with the assists. Needless to say, the crowd was berserk.
However, this provided the dreaded Two Goal Lead. Sure enough, just 41 seconds later, the Penguins cashed in, when Ben Lovejoy sent a wicked point shot past a heavily screened Bobrovsky. The assists went to former Jacket Blake Comeau and Daniel Winnik, and the game was afoot once again. The Penguins fans were back in the game, and the intensity on the ice returned to the nasty edge that has characterized the match-up over time. Downie and Hornqvist took turns alternately charging the crease and bumping Bobrovksy. At the 12:30 mark, Jack Johnson had enough, and sent Hornqvist sprawling with a blow to the jaw. Admirable defense of his net minder, but questionable judgment in the game situation. However, the penalty kill unit came through with flying colors. Shortly thereafter, Hornqvist again stormed the crease, sending both Bobrovsky and the net sprawling, This time, Nick Foligno took enforcement matters into his own hands, with a creative combination of fists and stick. Astonishingly, no penalties were handed out when the bodies were separated.
It was at this point that my only major criticism of the effort comes. While the Blue Jackets had established the pace and had managed to disrupt Pittsburgh's offensive flow, they suddenly surrendered the strategic advantage, sending only two forwards into the offensive zone, and maintaining the rest in the neutral zone and beyond. The allowed Pittsburgh to gain more possession time -- something that is generally not a good idea. However, the Blue Jackets skated, skated and skated some more, and it was that skating that provided the difference. As the clock nudged just inside a minute to go, and with Fleury on the bench, the Blue Jackets were able to out-skate the Penguins to the puck and rim it around the boards to Foligno, who brought the puck down the right wing, with Boone Jenner filling the middle. There would be no pass this time, as Foligno buried the puck in the empty net, simultaneously providing his first hat trick, his 30th goal of the season, his 70th point of the season, and the winning margin in the game. The hats rained down with particular vigor, the ensuing hug with Bobrovsky was never sweeter, and the parade of silent Penguins fans was beautiful to behold.
This one was sweet for more reasons than you can count. It provided the Blue Jackets with a 3 -1 win of the season series, extended the winning streak to nine games, guaranteed a .500 record based on points, and put on a really solid hockey display for a national audience. The Blue Jackets were able to take the Hornqvist/Downie agitation and channel it into constructive energy, while liberally applying their own irritants in the personages of Dubinsky and Hartnell.
It was a fitting coda for Foligno, who just does not know how to give anything less than 100%. He has also shown of late that he can be productive in virtually any line combination (though I still maintain that his chemistry with Johansen is other worldly). The forwards showed that they could skate and perform with a skilled team like the Penguins, and Savard, Johnson et al. turned in a really nice performance on the blue line. Marko Dano continues to contribute, with nothing evident emerging from his time in the Press Box. More on that another time.
The players and fans can justifiably be salivating over next year, based upon the quality of the play they are seeing on the ice. Not only is the game fast and technically sound, the Blue Jackets are beating good teams with significant playoff stakes. Today, Columbus also exposed Pittsburgh as perhaps having a bit of a fragile psyche. When the Penguins are on, they can steamroll anybody in the NHL. But if a team dares to challenge them, skate with them, show intolerance to their bullies and dish out some physical punishment, they frequently will back down. We saw it in the playoffs last year, and it was evident again today. That ability to take over the psychology of a game is a defining ability, and the Blue Jackets are showing they have that quality.
It was an engaging, entertaining matinee at Nationwide Arena. I can't wait to see what the last four have in store. Stay tuned.