Blue Jackets Dominate Special Teams to Knot Series at 1-1

When 24-year-old winger Matt Calvert scored 1:10 into Saturday’s second overtime he gave the Columbus Blue Jackets a 4-3 win in Game 2 of their first-round playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguins. That important road win knotted the series at 1-1, stole home ice from the Penguins and went down as the first postseason victory in the 13-year history of the Blue Jackets franchise.

But it was a goal Calvert scored two periods before – a shorthanded tally at 7:31 of the second – that made it all possible.

“[The Penguins] were very good in the first; that’s something I expected,” said Columbus head coach Todd Richards. “They played hard, they played fast and, at that moment, they were playing at a different level than us.

“The shorthanded goal was, I thought, the difference-maker in the game. I think it gave hope to our guys. It was 3-1 at the time, we score and make it 3-2, and you could feel it on the bench. I thought, from that moment on, we played a very strong game.”

The Blue Jackets very effectively kept the Penguins pinned in their defensive end for much of the second and third periods after that – sustaining puck possession and pressure, forcing Pittsburgh to play in their own zone and limiting their ability to go on the offensive attack.

Columbus also continued to shut down Pittsburgh’s biggest offensive weapons, as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin saw their playoff goalless streaks stretch to 19 periods, dating back to last season.

“Obviously, we’ve talked about them as players – that they’re talented players and you’ve got to be aware of when they’re on the ice – but we haven’t had a game plan in place [for shutting them down],” Richards said. “We’ve got to play hockey; do the things that we need to do to try to contain them. You aren’t going to shut those guys down; they’re too good, they’re too talented, they have complements on their wings that make them better players, too.”

Most importantly, Columbus dominated the special-teams battle. The Blue Jackets limited the Penguins to one goal in eight power-play chances, converted two of their own six opportunities, and came up with that game-changing shorthanded goal.

The Penguins also scored shorthanded early in the contest – speedy forward Brian Gibbons contributed that and another goal in a one-minute span before leaving the game with an injury – but allowing other teams to exploit their power-play mistakes is becoming a concerning trend. In six playoff series since 2011, Pittsburgh has allowed nine shorthanded goals in 30 games, including one in each of the first two games of this series.

“I don’t necessarily have an answer for the shorthanded goals against; they’ve hurt us big time,” said Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma. “Tonight, clearly, special teams are the difference in this game. In addition to the shorthanded goal, we had two other power plays [in the second period] that we didn’t capitalize on, and they gained a ton of momentum from that. It turned the tide for a good 14 minutes or so their way.”

That failure to come through on special teams is one of the last problems one might expect from a team that was leading the league in both categories – power play and penalty kill – for a long stretch of the regular season.

“We had opportunities,” said defenseman Matt Niskanen, who contributed the Penguins’ other goal on a power play late in the first period. “You’d like to capitalize on [another] one of them, maybe earlier in the game to extend your lead.”

“I think it’s just execution,” Crosby said. “We’re not creating enough consistently. Either we’re not entering [the offensive zone] well or we’re forcing things when we do get set up. That’s an area we have to improve. And special teams are huge in the playoffs, and we’ve been on the wrong side of them tonight.”

One bright spot for the Penguins in Game 2 was the play of goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who stopped 41 of the 45 shots he faced, many of them during periods of sustained offensive pressure by the Blue Jackets.

“He held us in there,” Crosby said. “It’s tough; you don’t want to hang him out to dry, but we made some mistakes.”

Now the Penguins head to Columbus for Games 3 and 4 in danger of falling behind in the series – an experienced, veteran team in need of some course-correction against the young, opportunistic Blue Jackets.

“I think it’s a missed opportunity,” Niskanen said. “We’re at home, Game 2, we’re having a great first period, a two-goal lead, and we’re in complete control of the hockey game. Whether it’s a mistake or them capitalizing on an opportunity, momentum changes [with the shorthanded goal in the second period] and it took us a while to get back to playing. They were kind of taking it to us. We let them back in the hockey game.

“I thought we played a better third, but they scored a power-play goal. And we had some decent looks in overtime; we still could’ve won. But [it was] a correctible thing in the second period to give them momentum like that.”

The Blue Jackets, meanwhile, will savor that first-ever playoff win, but not for long.

“It’s always about moving forward – what’s next on our agenda, what’s going to happen tomorrow,” Richards said. “Obviously it’s a great win for our hockey team and for a lot of people back in Columbus, our fans in particular, people who have been devoted to this organization. It’s big for them. But, for me, all it is is one win. That was my message to the team – enjoy it, but you’ve got to win four.”

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