The Penguins defeated the Columbus Blue Jackets, 4-3, on Wednesday night at CONSOL Energy Center in Game 1 of their first-round matchup. Commentary and analysis on the game can be found here, while the storylines of the game are below…
There have been so many questions about how Marc-Andre Fleury would perform in these playoffs after two rough springs. Well, if Wednesday’s Game 1 against the Blue Jackets is any indication, it looks like he’ll be just fine.
Fleury was an absolute rock in net for the Penguins against the Blue Jackets, making 31 saves to keep his team in a game they got outplayed in for at least the first 40 minutes.
“(He was) very big,” captain Sidney Crosby said. “We made some big mistakes and he had to bail us out a few times. We have to limit those and not make it so tough on him, but you don’t win in the playoffs without goaltending like that.”
After the game, Fleury sat in his stall talking quietly with goaltending coach Mike Bales. As the media approached him, Fleury drew his knees up to his chest and wrapped his arms around them, waiting for the questions.
How did it feel?
“It was fun. Stressful,” admitted a visibly relieved Fleury. “Great feeling to get the win at the end.”
His biggest save came on a breakaway with less than 20 seconds left in the second period with the game tied 3-3, when defensemen Olli Maatta and Matt Niskanen got caught at the blue line and forward Matt Calvert was in all alone. Calvert tried to deke, but Fleury read him perfectly and stabbed the puck away with a glorious pokecheck.
“I had already given up a breakaway goal, so wanted to make sure I stopped one of them,” said Fleury, referring to Columbus’ second goal, which was scored shorthanded. “Just got a piece on a poke check on the side.”
Fleury followed that up with another big stop with less than a minute left in regulation to hold Pittsburgh’s lead, when he was able to get a pad behind a slapshot taken by a Blue Jacket off the faceoff.
“The puck was just rolling when he shot,” Fleury said. “Just rolled, went down, hit the ice and popped back up. Hit me on the leg, so I was happy that one just went in the corner.”
SUTTER WINS IT
After a missed chance on a breakaway, Brandon Sutter went for the game-winning goal again, but this time he stuck the landing, or rather, found the back of the net.
At the 8:18-mark of the third period with the score still tied 3-3, Beau Bennett dished the puck at center ice and Sutter skated the puck along the side of the ice, coming in a little bit more to snipe it past goalie Sergei Bobrovsky.
Sutter said after the missed breakaway chance, he was happy to get one in.
“Obviously when you get a breakaway like that, you want to at least get a shot off,” Sutter said. “It is nice to bounce back and get something.”
Players talk so much about how it takes a few games to get their timing back after long layoffs due to injury. If that is the case for Evgeni Malkin, you certainly can’t tell.
Malkin, back in the lineup after missing the Pens’ last 11 regular-season games with a foot injury, looked like his normal self out there. And having the superstar center back healthy and playing like that is absolutely huge for the Pens. He was flying out there, making plays and putting the Blue Jackets back on their heels by gaining the zone and working the puck along the boards.
His legs were there, and so were his hands and world-class vision. In the first period, the Blue Jackets did a tremendous job of collapsing in front of their net, forming a box that the Penguins were struggling to break through, until Malkin took it upon himself to break through. Jokinen drifted into the middle of that box, and Malkin threaded a gorgeous pass through three Blue Jackets to find him there. Jokinen finished off the play by beating Bobrovsky. Classic ‘Geno.’
“I know he can make those passes and I think that’s how I’ve scored lots of goals this year,” Jokinen said. “I can kind of read the play, let the play develop a little bit and then jump in that hole. I know he can find me and it was a big goal to get us started.”
Malkin – who finished with two assists, looked like he hadn’t missed a beat – and neither did their line as a whole with James Neal.
“I think we had lots of confidence we could keep playing the way we played before Geno went down, and I think that’s what we were able to do,” Jokinen said. “We got that goal in the first and then we had a few really good chances in the third. We felt good as a line and how we played.”
BEAU KNOWS PLAYOFFS
Halfway through the game, Bennett was switched to the third line with Brandon Sutter and Lee Stempniak. But Bennett didn’t care. He just wanted to play, especially after missing the majority of the season to injuries. He joked after morning skate on Wednesday that’s he’s finally getting to midseason form at the end of the season.
Bennett set himself up for a two-point night, scoring for the Penguins on the power play in the second period and then assisting on Sutter’s game-winning goal in the third period.
He deflected his goal in on the power play off of a Matt Niskanen shot and said he was lucky Niskanen placed it so well for him to tip it in.
“You want to be moving towards the net, so you’re tipping it towards the net when he makes that play,” Bennett explained. “Luckily (Niskanen) put it right on my tape, it’s hard to react ... luckily he put it on my tape and it went in.”
Sutter said he enjoyed having Bennett on his line tonight.
“It was good, it was great,” Sutter said. “I thought we played great. We flipped the lines around a little bit tonight, but for the most part it was Bennett and Stempniak and for the most part I think we did a good job. We can definitely be an effective line and we were good defensively. That’s what we need.”
Bennett said that his line change Wednesday wasn’t a shock to him.
“I like the left wing,” Bennett said. “It’s nice to play with Sutter and (Stempniak), as well as (Kunitz) and (Crosby), but it wasn’t a huge surprise. Once it happened, we just had to focus in and play well.”
He also delivered a massive hit on Blue Jackets defenseman Ryan Murray, showing his physical play on the ice, but joked after that he probably was hurting more than Murray.
“I think that hurt me more than it hurt him,” Bennett laughed. “It’s something I tried to add into my game, get the big hit, get the boys going a little and I just saw an opportunity and kept skating through him.”
--Sam Kasan, Pittsburgh Penguins