INSIDE HOCKEY » Columbus Blue Jackets http://insidehockey.com Get Inside! Fri, 25 Jul 2014 01:36:18 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Columbus Blue Jackets’ Off-Season Plans http://insidehockey.com/columbus-blue-jackets-off-season-plans http://insidehockey.com/columbus-blue-jackets-off-season-plans#comments Wed, 02 Jul 2014 16:17:52 +0000 http://insidehockey.com/?p=59047

Now that the National Hockey League (NHL) Entry Draft is over, the attention now turns to the Unrestricted Free Agent (UFA) signing period and for the upstart Columbus Blue Jackets, there is no respite, no resting upon their recent laurels.

The Blue Jackets took a major step towards re-molding the direction of the team and their overall fortunes by acquiring Scott Hartnell from the Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for RJ Umberger and a 4th round draft pick in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft.

There is also the major issue of negotiating a contract, be it a bridge contract – a short-term contract wherein a team pays a player less in his restricted years of free agency, with the notion that the subject players big ‘pay day’ will come in their next contract – or a major contract extension – which can be quite risky if the player doesn’t perform as planned, with ascending center Ryan Johansen who netted 66 points during a breakout season in 2013-14.

However, Blue Jackets General Manager (GM) Jarmo Kekalainen assured the local fans that, should any other NHL team attempt to provide an offer sheet to Johansen – and that is becoming a less-often used practice by NHL teams due to the potential compensation given to the team who is giving up the player being sought after – that they will certainly match the offer extended.

But the notion that the current Blue Jackets managerial regime will simply rest on the belief that the Hartnell trade as well as the continued development track of its young core like Johansen, Cam Atkinson, Ryan Murray, Boone Jenner and David Savard and the much-anticipated arrival of its highly-regarded prospects – Alexander Wennberg, Kirby Rychel, Oliver Bjorkstrand and Marko Dano – is one that highly underestimates the relentless pursuit of organizational greatness that Kekalainen is aiming to obtain.

While the Blue Jackets improved its goal-scoring proclivity during the 2013-14 regular season, finishing 12th in the NHL in goals scored, there is much-needed improvement in finding the back of the net if the Blue Jackets want to continue of their upward track.

Adding Hartnell to Johansen, Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, Jenner and the hopeful full recovery of Nathan Horton to his usual stellar play – Horton struggled towards the end of his first season with the Blue Jackets after major shoulder surgery and was shut down towards the end of the regular season – provides a team that both competes and is extremely difficult to play against.  However, adding a Top Six (first two forward scoring lines) forward to the mix can allow the Blue Jackets to ascend to an instant Stanley Cup title contender.

This year’s UFA crop, particularly after Ryan Callahan decided to stay with the Tampa Bay Lightning and Marian Gaborik re-signed with the LA Kings is somewhat thin as to impact, scoring forwards.  Given that variable, UFAs like Paul Stastny, Thomas Vanek and Matt Moulson will be highly sought after by many NHL clubs although after stunning most pundits in signing Nathan Horton, you can rest assured that not acquiring one of these prolific forwards won’t be for a lack of effort by Kekalainen and Blue Jackets President of Hockey Operations John Davidson.

Also, if signing Johansen to a contract extension should an offer sheet be extended by another NHL team dwindles the remaining salary cap availability, the Blue Jackets won’t be shy in pursuing the trade route with other NHL organizations.

If they opt for this route, they will probably do so by offering to partner up with NHL teams who are in a salary cap crunch situation – i.e. teams like the Boston Bruins, the San Jose Sharks or the Philadelphia Flyers – and who need to trade away a solid player for a player or players who is/are more ‘salary cap-friendly’ and can fit into their salary cap constraints.

While it’s anyone’s guess which players that might be, players on salary cap-crunched teams who are rumored to possibly be available via trades include Loui Eriksson of the Boston Bruins and Joe Pavelski of the San Jose Sharks.

As for the players the Blue Jackets might consider trading away to obtain these players, which is also anyone’s guess, players to keep in mind are forwards Cam Atkinson, Matt Calvert and, depending on the level of player – a marquee player or a solid, proven NHL scorer – possibly someone like Artem Anisimov and on the defensive end, possibly David Savard or Tim Erixon.

Assuming the Blue Jackets can obtain a player of that caliber, they can also acquire via the UFA route a solid scoring winger like David Legwand, Mason Raymond or possibly the Ottawa Senators UFA Milan Michalek.

Even if the Blue Jackets do opt to stay put with their upstart, young core, the future and their ascending aspirations look extremely bright for the 2014-15 season.

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Options Abound for the Blue Jackets http://insidehockey.com/options-abound-for-the-blue-jackets http://insidehockey.com/options-abound-for-the-blue-jackets#comments Sat, 28 Jun 2014 01:45:20 +0000 http://insidehockey.com/?p=59027

While Monday’s trade of RJ Umberger for Scott Hartnell completely changed the dynamic and the identity of the upstart Columbus Blue Jackets, resting on the laurels of that trade would be foolhardy and wouldn’t be in the DNA of Blue Jackets General Manager (GM) Jarmo Kekalainen.  While their inaugural season in the Eastern Conference and Metropolitan Division was a rousing success, there is still plenty of work to do to continue to build the organization towards its goal of winning the Stanley Cup.

Kekalainen’s legacy for drafting and development is the stuff of legend as he has accomplished both tasks with the best scouts in the game.  And while this draft is not slated to be a great draft, there is solid talent available and a plethora of options available in this National Hockey League (NHL) Entry Draft.

The Blue Jackets select 16th, overall in the 1st round of the draft; however, they also have four of the top 77 picks in the draft.

The Blue Jackets primary needs are to draft and develop forward line help, particularly on the wings, both the Right and Left Wing positions.  However, great teams – a case in point are the Los Angeles Kings, who’ve won two of the last three Stanley Cup titles – are built from the back end specifically, the blueline and in goal so continuing to build at those positions is tantamount.

While the Blue Jackets ranked 12th overall in goals scored, its overall lack of firepower is a constraint, one that prevented them from advancing further in their 1st Round Stanley Cup playoff series against the Penguins.  While its young players like Ryan Johansen made a seismic leap towards NHL stardom, there is an overall lack of depth in secondary scoring past Johansen, with only two other Blue Jackets netting more than 20 goals during the regular season.

And while last year’s three 1st round forwards offer hope for offensive fireworks down the road, they are probably years away from playing for the parent squad.  However, that is not to say that the draft is the very vehicle to lay the groundwork for sustained future goal-scoring proclivity.

Kekalainen’s primary determinant for drafting players are those prospects who have speed, particularly the speed necessary to process the lightning-quick pace of today’s NHL.  Examples of these types of players are Alex Pietrangelo, David Perron and David Rundblad (who was traded to the Ottawa Senators then to the Phoenix Coyotes).  Kekalainen also prefers players with NHL-ready bodies who can readily step into the league very quickly.  Examples of this aspect are former St. Louis Blues draftees Lars Eller, David Backes, Patrik Berglund and TJ Oshie.

As for this particular NHL Entry Draft, combining the uncertainty of the overall draft talent and the Blue Jackets possessing a pick in the middle of the 1st round versus a top 10 draft pick, something the Blue Jackets were slotted for during 11 of its first 14 NHL Entry Drafts, their targeted players could go a variety of ways.

But, for purposes of the Blue Jackets needs and Kekalainen’s pedigree for specific types of players, and depending on whether a particular player drops down to their slot in the draft that would have been expected otherwise, the list of players that the Blue Jackets may draft in the 1st Round is as follows:  forwards Sonny Milano, Alex Tuch, Jared McCann, Kasperi Kapanen, Brendan Perlini or Ivan Barbashev; defensemen Julius Honka and Hadyn Fleury are two offensive defensemen that could provide a boost to the Blue Jackets Power Play and overall scoring success and would be a great compliment to their 2012 1st round (2nd overall) defenseman Ryan Murray who enjoyed a very successful rookie season in the NHL.

Of the list of forwards, Alex Tuch would appear to possess the variables that Kekalainen usually prefers, given his penchant for drafting big power forwards who possess great hands.  Barbashev’s skill set would compliment last year’s trio of Blue Jackets forwards drafted – Wennberg, Dano and Rychel.  As to the aforementioned defensemen, Julius Honka could be the type of puck-moving, playmaking defenseman that could provide a potent 1-2 punch with Murray as the Blue Jackets top defensive pairing.

As for future rounds of the draft, a name to keep in mind in the 2nd round, unless he is drafted sooner, is Ryan McGinnis, the son of the Al McGinnis, possessor of one of the NHL’s legendary howitzer’s (slap shots), particularly as both Kekalainen and Blue Jackets President of Hockey Operations John Davidson worked with Al McGinnis in the St. Louis Blues’ organization.

No matter the selection, the Blue Jackets hope to add to the NHL’s meteoric rise of drafting and developing prospects under the savvy, watchful eye of Kekalainen and his amateur scouts.

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Blue Jackets Acquire Scott Hartnell http://insidehockey.com/blue-jackets-acquire-scott-hartnell http://insidehockey.com/blue-jackets-acquire-scott-hartnell#comments Tue, 24 Jun 2014 18:25:56 +0000 http://insidehockey.com/?p=59004

The Columbus Blue Jackets pulled off a major trade today, acquiring Left Winger Scott Hartnell from the Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for forward RJ Umberger and a 4th round pick in next year’s 2015 National Hockey League (NHL) Entry Draft.

Umberger was the subject of trade speculation since being a healthy scratch for four games over a seven-game stretch during the Blue Jackets Stanley Cup playoff run.  Umberger was also scratched for the first two games of the Blue Jackets 1st round Stanley Cup playoff series against his hometown Pittsburgh Penguins.  After the season had ended, it was revealed that Umberger was frustrated with the benching by Blue Jackets Head Coach Todd Richards and went to Blue Jackets General Manager (GM) Jarmo Kekalainen and Team President of Hockey Operations John Davidson to request to be traded.

It was becoming readily apparent that Umberger didn’t fit with the direction of the Blue Jackets organization, one that Kekalainen envisions as a young, north-south, gritty team with plenty of speed and youth.  Additionally, Umberger’s production has dwindled during the past three seasons, going from averaging 56 points a season from 2009-11 to averaging 34 points per season, assuming you extrapolate the lockout-shortened season as well as giving consideration to registering 20 points during his last 12 games of the 2011-12 regular season when the Blue Jackets cemented the NHL’s worst regular season record.

While a sound offensive player, particularly on the Power Play, Umberger wasn’t the swiftest skater and was often streaky and inconsistent and didn’t seem to grab the mantle of being the Blue Jackets team captain, something that the local fans seemed to think was a ‘done deal’ for the former Ohio State Hockey player.  However, his scoring struggles seemed to bog down his overall fire in the locker room with his much younger teammates, thus the captaincy appeared not to be in the offing.

At an initial glance, trading for the veteran forward was going to be tough.  With three full seasons at $4.6 million per season remaining on his contract, given his dwindling offensive statistics, not to mention his list of ten NHL teams he rejected being traded to, his contract was considered to be a bit of an albatross, particularly for a player who requested to be traded, a version of the ‘horse out of the barn’ from a leverage standpoint.

The seemingly probable option was a compliance buyout, in which the Blue Jackets, who had their full allotment of two amnesty buyouts available to them, would pay 2/3rds of Umberger’s remaining salary over the course of double the years, in this case, over six seasons which would equate to a per year amount of $1.6 million per season.  However, for a small market team, particularly one that has struggled with attendance the prior few seasons, this option was a bit of a financial constraint.

However, Kekalainen once again displayed the creativity and boldness to garner a trade and was able to contact new Flyers GM Ron Hextall who was willing to part with Hartnell and the trade was consummated.

In Hartnell, the Blue Jackets do acquire a feisty player who can easily get under the opponents skin, one who has good offensive instincts and is a solid finisher to the net.  On the minus side, Hartnell is also prone to some questionable antics and can incur a plethora of penalty minutes, having averaged over 100 penalty minutes for nine of his 12 full seasons in the NHL, although extrapolating the lockout-shortened season of 2013, he was well on his way to 100 and narrowly missed 100 penalty minutes for the other two full seasons.  He has also averaged over 22 goals and 24 assists during his career, capped off by a 37-goal campaign in 2011-12.

As to his contract, Hartnell has five years remaining on his contract at $4.75 million per season, so his annual salary is only slightly higher than Umberger’s.

However, for the upstart Blue Jackets, Hartnell epitomizes the direction and type of style the organization intends to play under Messrs. Davidson and Kekalainen.  Acquiring Hartnell also allows Kekalainen to more slowly groom his cadre of talented young forwards drafted in last year’s NHL Entry Draft, namely Alexander Wennberg, Kirby Rychel, Marko Dano and Oliver Bjorkstrand.

Finally, Kekalainen deftly avoids a compliance buyout, one which particularly to some ardent Ohio State fans who occupy the Central Ohio area would have had some consternation with.  However, as this new fan-base must be quick to realize, that – his Ohio State playing days – was college, this is professional hockey.  Davidson and Kekalainen didn’t view this factor nor should have they – this is a business, one with the ultimate prize, one of claiming and raising the Stanley Cup.  While not the type of trade that cements this quest, it is one that lays the foundation for continued success for the young Blue Jackets organization.

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Photo Gallery: NHL April Photos of the Month http://insidehockey.com/photo-gallery-nhl-april-photos-of-the-month http://insidehockey.com/photo-gallery-nhl-april-photos-of-the-month#comments Mon, 05 May 2014 17:49:00 +0000 http://insidehockey.com/?p=58610

Here are the April 2014 NHL Photos of the Month from the photographers at Inside Hockey.

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Pens Survive Game Six, Eliminate Blue Jackets http://insidehockey.com/pens-survive-game-six-eliminate-blue-jackets http://insidehockey.com/pens-survive-game-six-eliminate-blue-jackets#comments Tue, 29 Apr 2014 16:58:57 +0000 http://insidehockey.com/?p=58499

Game 6 of the 1st Round Stanley Cup playoff series continued in Columbus’ Nationwide Arena, where the Pittsburgh Penguins, winners of the Metropolitan Division and the number 2 overall seed in the Eastern Conference were pitted up against the upstart Columbus Blue Jackets, who garnered the Eastern Conference’s 1st wild-card slot and 7th overall finish, with the Penguins hold a 3-2 lead in this potential, best of seven-game series.

And this series has encountered the greatest of oddities, now known as ‘the curse of the 3-1 lead’ as in the first 4 contests, the losing team in each instance sported a 3-1 lead only to surrender 3 consecutive goals to lose the game and lose to the opponent by a 4-3 final score.  In the case of the 2 Blue Jackets wins, the victories occurred in overtime whereas the Penguins won by that score during regulation.

The Pens (Penguins) narrowly escaped Game 1, winning on a goal by Brandon Sutter with 10:38 remaining in the 3rd period, sneaking under the right armpit of Blue Jackets netminder Sergei Bobrovsky after the Blue Jackets surged to a 3-1 lead early in the 2nd period.

However, the Blue Jackets rebounded with a stunning 4-3 Double Overtime victory on a goal by Matt Calvert, who buried his own rebound after hovering around the net and roofing a shot over Pens goalie Marc Andre-Fleury.  The victory, the Blue Jackets organization’s first ever playoff game victory, ignited the team and set up their Game 3 matchup in the friendly confines of Nationwide Arena.

In Game 3, the Blue Jackets stormed out to a 2-0 lead in the first 3:16 of the first period, extended the lead to 3-1 early in the third period only to surrender a flurry of three goals in a span of 2:13 to take a 4-3 lead and hang onto that lead to preserve the victory by that margin.

In Game 4, where the Penguins seemingly appeared to have snapped ‘the curse of the 3-1 lead’ with one minute to play; however, Penguins goalie Marc Andre-Fleury broke one of the cardinal rules of goaltending by leaving the crease to clear a puck, only to have the puck deflect back in front of the goal where Brandon Dubinsky pounced on the opportunity and buried a shot into the net to send the game into overtime.  Then in overtime, Nick Foligno launched a fluttering shot just inside the Penguins defensive zone, easily beating an unscreened Fleury and the Blue Jackets triumphed by a final score of 4-3.

In Game 5, however, the ‘curse of the 3-1 lead’ was broken as, although the Blue Jackets scored the game’s first goal on the power play by Boone Jenner, the Penguins scored the game’s next three goals, one being an empty net goal with 1:00 left to play in the 3rd period to ice the victory.  Also, the Penguins had the push and dominated the action, out-shooting the Blue Jackets, 51-24.

Interestingly, where one team, the Blue Jackets, have become both energized and cognizant that they can indeed win this 1st round series, the opposite reaction has occurred with the Penguins, where panic has ensued and the whispers that, even if they prevail in the series, nothing short of hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup will result in a potential, complete overhaul to include firing Penguins Head Coach Dan Bylsma and opting not to return Fleury for the remaining term of his contract which has one year remaining.

So, the Penguins, during Game 5 and for the first time in the series, demonstrated a sense of urgency as the Blue Jackets have been that pesky team refuses to go away.

In Game 6, the Penguins left no doubt as to answering the bell, jutting out to a 4-0 lead in the first two periods led by Evgeni Malkin, finally breaking out of his post-season doldrums dating back to last season’s Eastern Conference finals against the Boston Bruins, registering a hat trick (3 goals).  However, the never-say-die Blue Jackets surged back with a 3-goal 3rd period run and electrified the Nationwide Arena crowd.  Despite a furious 4-minute surge, the Penguins held on and preserved the win, thus winning the series in four games to two against the scrappy Blue Jackets.

As to the Shots on Goal (SOG) statistical category for Game 6, despite a large SOG advantage for the Penguins during the 1st period, 16-7, the Blue Jackets finished with a 10-5 SOG advantage in the 3rd period and the SOGs ended up, 28-27, narrowly favoring the Penguins.

For the Penguins, it was the proverbial sigh of relief, surviving another 1st round scare from an upstart bunch, last season being the New York Islanders.  However, this time around, the series wasn’t as easy to dispatch and prevail as with the Isles as with the Blue Jackets, who pushed the Penguins to the limit and to the very waning seconds of Game 6.  And, unlike last season’s foray into the 2nd round, the Penguins are left with more questions than answers, particularly if they play the Philadelphia Flyers who have discovered the blueprint on how to defeat the Penguins.

For the young Blue Jackets, it was a sign of things to come.  There were a lot of takeaways, going forward, to the tenacity they displayed in this 1st Round series to experiencing valuable playoff experience to the great strides their organization has made both in their young core and to the heightened expectations that accompany this breakthrough season.  This season will serve as the foundation for a team to be reckoned with for many years to come.

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Wild Series Comes to a Wild End as Pens Escape with 4-3 Win http://insidehockey.com/wild-series-comes-to-a-wild-end-as-pens-escape-with-4-3-win http://insidehockey.com/wild-series-comes-to-a-wild-end-as-pens-escape-with-4-3-win#comments Tue, 29 Apr 2014 04:45:42 +0000 http://insidehockey.com/?p=58504

Watching Evgeni Malkin at Monday’s morning skate in Columbus, James Neal, his usual linemate, had a feeling the superstar center was on the verge of busting out of a goalless drought dating back 10 playoff games.

“I think I could see it coming; everything he shot was going in the back of the net,” Neal said. “We talked about it; he’s got to shoot the puck more, and you saw that tonight. Sid and Kuni [captain Sidney Crosby and linemate Chris Kunitz] made some great plays to him but, with his finish, he’s hard to stop.”

Malkin shot the puck more, all right, doubling up any other teammate with six shots on goal in Game 6. And three of them hit the back of the net, giving Malkin a hat trick by late in the second period and – along with a beauty of an individual effort from forward Brandon Sutter – helping the Penguins build a 4-0 lead.

For the first time in the series, the young Blue Jackets looked overwhelmed by Pittsburgh’s significant advantage in playoff experience and its star forwards with the capability to take over a game. In a wild series where no 3-1 or 3-0 lead was safe, this time felt different, like the Penguins were simply throwing too much at Columbus for them to recover.

Then, at 10:21 of the third period, Blue Jackets defenseman Fedor Tyutin got his team on the board with a shorthanded goal. Three and a half minutes later, forward Artem Anisimov cashed in on a Columbus power play and, just over a minute after that, forward Nick Foligno, the overtime hero in Game 4, had, incredibly, brought the Blue Jackets within a goal.

“We played the power play against and we did not play right,” said Malkin, who was not on the ice for Tyutin’s shorthanded goal but was for the third goal of the Blue Jackets’ rally. “It’s the playoffs and we need to understand how important [it is] to play 60 minutes. We just lose focus and three goals.”

With nearly five minutes still remaining in regulation, Columbus had plenty of time to try to tie the contest. And now it was the relentless Blue Jackets throwing everything they had at the Penguins in an effort to do just that, with the fans at Nationwide Arena cheering them on and chanting “CBJ” to the point of near delirium.

“It’s what we talked about – the building was going to be loud in here, it was going to be an exciting atmosphere,” Neal said. “With their backs against the wall, they’re going to give it all they’ve got, and they definitely did that. They played us tough every game, all series long, and right to the last minute they were pushing to tie it up.”

Somehow, the Penguins found a way to hold on, winning the game, 4-3, and the series, 4-2.

“You can feel the momentum changing; the fans get into it goal after goal,” Kunitz said. “But, the last three or four minutes, I think we did a good job – not playing on our heels, make sure to go back for pucks, get it over the blue line, put pucks deep – and I think we matched their intensity the last couple minutes when they really made that big push. We’ve got to start playing 60-minute games, but we found a way to survive one of the toughest rounds, getting out of the first.”

Perhaps most important to surviving that late surge was goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who has remained confident despite being under intense scrutiny since his miscue in the waning seconds of regulation and 55-foot overtime goal cost Pittsburgh what appeared to be a sure win in Game 4.

“A good job by Flower,” Neal said. “He played great, stood tall in the net for us.”

“It was a good test,” said Fleury, who won his first playoff series in four years. “I think I’ve got to stay relaxed, stay calm and not chase the play too much. Not try to go for the big saves; wait for the pucks to come to me. I think I got a few good saves in there, and just happy to get a win at the end.”

Now Pittsburgh awaits the winner of the New York Rangers-Philadelphia Flyers series, which could wrap up as early as Tuesday if the Rangers clinch. The Penguins will welcome the time off for rest – they lost centers Sutter and Joe Vitale to injury in Game 6 – and practice as they try to build on lessons learned from a hard-fought series against the wildcard Blue Jackets, who gave them nearly all they could handle over six games, all but one of which were decided by a 4-3 score.

“I think, being the favorite, everybody expects so much from your team [and expects you] to win in four,” Fleury said. “But every team that makes the playoffs, there’s a reason why they do. This team came hard at us for six games and I think they showed us how good we have to play to win games. I think, the last two games, we played very good, very hard and found ways to get the win.”

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Penguins Fire 51 Shots to Win 3-1, Take 3-2 Series Lead http://insidehockey.com/penguins-fire-51-shots-to-win-3-1-take-3-2-series-lead http://insidehockey.com/penguins-fire-51-shots-to-win-3-1-take-3-2-series-lead#comments Sun, 27 Apr 2014 05:28:14 +0000 http://insidehockey.com/?p=58438

Saturday, for perhaps the first time in their first-round playoff series against the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Pittsburgh Penguins spent the majority of a game playing the way they wanted. But Columbus netminder Sergei Bobrovsky, last year’s Vezina Trophy winner, was threatening to steal one, stopping 48 of the 50 shots he faced to help his team stay within a goal of the Penguins’ slender, 2-1 lead.

“He was solid,” said Penguins captain Sidney Crosby. “When it’s tight like that and you’re getting some good chances and they’re not going in, you just have to stay patient. You see that time and time again in the playoffs. You just trust that, eventually, you’ll get a few. And we did.”

The two goals that beat Bobrovsky came from Pittsburgh taking a page out of the Blue Jackets’ playbook, generating traffic in front to create some open-net space. The Penguins finally got a third, insurance goal on their 51st shot of the night, when defenseman Kris Letang fired one into an empty net with 1:01 remaining.

“We competed hard. We played desperate, played really aggressive,” Crosby said. “I think we were on our toes and forced some turnovers, created a lot of havoc and generated a lot of chances. That’s the game we have to play. It’s not always going to result in 50 shots, but that’s more our style of play.”

The Penguins did a lot of the little things right in Game 5. They didn’t jump out to a three-goal lead as they had in Game 4, spotting Columbus the first goal at 12:55 of the first period. But they played a patient game, controlling the puck, moving it up ice quickly and keeping it in the offensive zone. They put shots on net and bodies in front of it, got pucks cleared away from goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and, in general, made the simple, smart plays the majority of the time.

Fleury did that, too, after a misplayed puck with 22.5 seconds left in regulation and a 55-foot goal in overtime of Game 4 made him the most embattled Penguin over the past two days, despite having been the best player for either team up to that point. Saturday, he faced only 24 shots but handled them well, staying in position, covering up rebounds and making the big saves when he needed to.

“I think he’s been through so much and had to deal with so many things,” Crosby said. “Being in the league as long as he has and dealing with the pressure he has, I think he was able to turn the page pretty quickly and that’s what you have to do, especially in the playoffs. He showed his experience here tonight.”

The home crowd got behind Fleury early, chanting his name before the puck dropped and again throughout the game.

“It’s a good boost of confidence,” the 29-year-old goaltender said. “You get goosebumps when you’re in there. It’s definitely a great feeling.”

Knowing their goaltender’s game and mental state were solid helped the Penguins pursue the aggressive, puck-possession style of play they wanted.

“It’s unfortunate [Game 4 ended] that way and it would’ve been easy to feel real down on ourselves,” said defenseman Rob Scuderi. “But, starting with Marc coming out with a tremendous effort and playing well, the entire room [was] able to keep our intensity level and our pace of play real high throughout the game. It definitely helped.”

Head coach Dan Bylsma helped spark the Penguins’ offense by pairing his two superstar centers, Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, on a line throughout much of the game. Both have yet to register a goal in the series, but Crosby collected his fifth assist in five games and both contributed to Pittsburgh’s sustained offensive pressure.

“I thought it went pretty good; we generated some good chances,” said Crosby, who was credited with six shots on goal while Malkin had two and attempted two more. “I didn’t expect it to be as much as it was; it was pretty regular. But, when everybody’s playing well, you don’t really want to change too much.”

Bylsma lost a player between Games 4 and 5 as veteran defenseman Brooks Orpik was sidelined with an undisclosed injury, giving big, 25-year-old blueliner Robert Bortuzzo the chance to make his postseason debut. But he also gained a player, getting Marcel Goc back from an ankle injury, and the two-way center’s presence in the lineup helped make the decision to pair Crosby and Malkin that much easier.

“Knowing that you can take a centerman [Malkin] out of that position and put him on the wing, and you have Marcel Goc – who’s not really a fourth-line center, he’s higher than that – able to slot in, that was a big part of feeling comfortable with that situation,” Bylsma said.

He also liked what he got from his other lines.

“I thought Joey [Vitale] played one of his better games and kind of platooned in the middle there with Goc, and Brandon Sutter playing between Jussi [Jokinen] and [James] Neal, he was real strong in this game; we saw his speed numerous times through the neutral zone. [Crosby with Malkin] probably happened a little more than we initially planned, but I liked it.”

The Penguins now head back to Columbus to try to close out the series Monday and avoid bringing a winner-take-all Game 7 back to Pittsburgh.

“We have to realize they’re going to be as desperate as they’ve been; it doesn’t get any easier and we know the fourth [win] is the toughest,” Crosby said. “I think we take some lessons from this game but also understand they’re going to be at their very best, and it’s going to take maybe even more than it did tonight.

“[We need to] make sure we have that same mentality of being aggressive and not sitting back and waiting to see what they do. We have to make sure we go after them.”

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Blue Jackets Pull Off Another Stunning OT Victory http://insidehockey.com/blue-jackets-pull-off-another-stunning-ot-victory http://insidehockey.com/blue-jackets-pull-off-another-stunning-ot-victory#comments Thu, 24 Apr 2014 20:47:01 +0000 http://insidehockey.com/?p=58401

Game 4 of the First Round Stanley Cup playoff series continued in Columbus’ Nationwide Arena, where the Pittsburgh Penguins, winners of the Metropolitan Division and the number 2 overall seed in the Eastern Conference against the upstart Columbus Blue Jackets, who garnered the Eastern Conference’s first wild-card slot and seventh overall finish, with the Penguins sporting a narrow 2-1 lead in the series, which each result ending in a 4-3 victory for the respective victorious team.

Ironically, the losing team in each instance sported a 3-1 lead only to surrender three consecutive goals to lose the game.  The Pens (Penguins) narrowly escaped Game 1, winning on a goal by Brandon Sutter with 10:38 remaining in the third period, sneaking under the right armpit of Blue Jackets netminder Sergei Bobrovsky after the Blue Jackets surged to a 3-1 lead early in the second period.

However, the Blue Jackets rebounded with a stunning 4-3 Double Overtime victory on a goal by Matt Calvert, who buried his own rebound after hovering around the net and roofing a shot over Pens goalie Marc Andre-Fleury.  The victory, the Blue Jackets organization’s first ever playoff game victory, ignited the team and set up their Game 3 matchup in the friendly confines of Nationwide Arena.

In Game 3, the Blue Jackets stormed out to a 2-0 lead in the first 3:16 of the first period, extended the lead to 3-1 early in the third period only to surrender a flurry of three goals in a span of 2:13 to take a 4-3 lead and hang onto that lead to preserve the victory by that margin.

The Penguins continue to be frustrated in the first three games of the series as the Blue Jackets heavy fore-checking and physical play has forced the Pens to abandon their free-wheeling style of play led by Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.  And while Crosby and Malkin have yet to be a factor, in Game 3, the Penguins tallied their goals by their supporting cast, primarily caused by the Blue Jackets’ blueline inability to box-out the Penguins’ forwards occupying the net area.

The stage was now set for another raucous, sellout crowd of 18,970 at Nationwide Arena.

This time, it was the Penguins bursting out to the 3-1 lead, actually 3-0, on goals from Craig Adams, Chris Kunitz and James Neal, the latter two being scored within 33 seconds of each other.

And, as fate would have it, the team sporting the 3-1 lead, this time the Penguins, would eventually relinquish it as they allowed the Blue Jackets to creep back into the game.  The Blue Jackets scored on a goal by Boone Jenner late in the first period and followed it up with a Power Play goal, on a five-on-three advantage, by Ryan Johansen and they entered the third period with life and as Blue Jackets head coach Todd Richards said, with hope.

While the Blue Jackets pulled goalie Sergei Bobrovsky with just over one minute to play in the game, and while it looked a bit dire, the Blue Jackets and their fans erupted when, with 0:22 left to play, Marc Andre Fleury was caught out of his net and Brandon Dubinsky made him pay and buried the game-tying goal to force it into overtime.

In overtime, Nick Foligno launched a slap shot just inside the Penguins defensive zone, easily beating an unscreened Fleury, causing the throng at Nationwide Arena to explode with thunderous cheering and the Blue Jackets evened the series at 2 games, apiece and ironically as in the previous 3 games, with a final score of 4-3.

In a role reversal of Game 3, the Blue Jackets out-shot the Penguins in Game 4, 46-25, when in Game 3, the Penguins out-shot the Blue Jackets, 41-20.  Most interesting in the SOG department, the Blue Jackets out-shot the Penguins for periods 2-3 and into Overtime, 32-14.

While the Blue Jackets have proven that they can compete with the Penguins, the Penguins are in a bit of a state of disbelief, searching for answers with their game plan, how their star players have been stymied by the Blue Jackets tight, fore-checking style and now, although he’s been the anchor for the Penguins thus far, the disastrous finish by Fleury, causing the echoes and ghosts of the past two Stanley Cup playoffs past to reemerge.

So, as Todd Richards stated in his post-game press conference, it’s now a three-game series with two games slated at Consol Energy Center and one at Nationwide Arena with both teams splitting the series with a home and road victory, apiece.

Game 5 is slated for Saturday at Consol Energy Center at 7 P.M. and, if Games 1-4 are any indication, as they say, it’s “Game On.”

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Photo Gallery: Penguins @ Blue Jackets (04/23/14) http://insidehockey.com/photo-gallery-penguins-blue-jackets-042314 http://insidehockey.com/photo-gallery-penguins-blue-jackets-042314#comments Thu, 24 Apr 2014 20:43:52 +0000 http://insidehockey.com/?p=58399

The Blue Jackets beat the Pittsburgh Penguins 4-3 in OT in Game 4 of the NHL Playoffs Wednesday, April 23, 2014 at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, OH.  The series is tied 2-2.  (Inside Hockey – Rachel Lewis)

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Penguins Follow Same Script as Blue Jackets Tie Series http://insidehockey.com/penguins-follow-same-script-as-blue-jackets-tie-series http://insidehockey.com/penguins-follow-same-script-as-blue-jackets-tie-series#comments Thu, 24 Apr 2014 04:13:17 +0000 http://insidehockey.com/?p=58403

COLUMBUS, OHIO – For 59-plus minutes, Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury had been the best player on the ice for either team.

After Pittsburgh jumped out to a 3-0 lead by the 11:10 mark of the first period, Columbus slowly began to dominate. The Blue Jackets outshot the Penguins, 25-8, after Pittsburgh scored its third goal, drawing penalties and scoring on two of the resulting power plays, including a two full minutes of five-on-three hockey. But Fleury continued his strong play in the series, particularly at even strength, stopping 38 of the 40 shots he faced through the final seconds of regulation and preserving the Penguins’ one-goal lead.

Then, with Columbus goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky pulled for the final minute and the Blue Jackets swarming around the net, Fleury got caught out of his cage.

“The guy just dumped it in and it wasn’t that hard, so I went to stop it for our D, and I don’t know,” Fleury said of his attempt to handle the puck behind the net. “It just bounced in front of my stick and went to the guy in front.”

Fleury scrambled to get back in time, but alternate captain Brandon Dubinsky pounced. With 22.5 seconds remaining, the sellout crowd of 18,970 at Nationwide Arena – and the Blue Jackets’ booming goal cannon – erupted. And the teams adjourned to their dressing rooms to prepare for overtime.

“I trust if the goalie goes out there he feels like he’s got a good chance of getting it,” said captain Sidney Crosby. “I didn’t really get a good look at it but, for a puck to come out like that, I’m sure it had to bounce or take some kind of weird hop. It’s always easy to question things but, if it doesn’t take that hop, we’re all the way out of the zone.”

For an incredible fourth time in the four-game series, a team had blown what was at one point a 3-1 – in this case, a 3-0 – lead. For the fourth time, the final score would be 4-3. And, in what seemed an almost inevitable conclusion, the team that had clawed all the way back won it, with Columbus winger Nick Foligno, just 2:49 into the extra frame, sending a 55-foot shot toward the net that somehow found its way past the Penguins’ netminder.

“[Fleury] played great for us,” Crosby said. “They really came hard. They were down and they tried to take as many chances as they could to get back in the game and it worked. We didn’t get that next one and he made some big saves. We’ve got to find a way to be better.”

Indeed, the Penguins had started letting the game slip away long before that.

“In the second period, you saw us take four penalties, so that was a big portion of them pushing forward,” said head coach Dan Bylsma. “Even before the penalties, they were starting to come with a lot of pressure; their defensemen were pinching down the walls.

“Having to kill off that much [penalty] time, they gained a goal and a ton of momentum. We needed to keep the game at 3-1 and weren’t able to do that. We shut it down for a good portion of the third but ended up giving up the goal with [22.5] seconds left.”

“I don’t want to sit here and say we don’t want to get up 3-1; obviously that’s not the case,” said forward Craig Adams. “You want to stay aggressive; you want to stay on your toes. Obviously you don’t need to take any chances when you’ve got a lead but, at the same time, you can’t sit back and that tends to give you more problems than if you just stick with your game. We did that a bit tonight, especially in the second period. We were in our end way too much.”

The No. 2, Metropolitan Division-winning Penguins came into this series as a heavy favorite against the No. 7, wildcard Blue Jackets. Now, a Pittsburgh team that still has the core of its 2009 Stanley Cup roster is tied with an upstart Columbus team that, combined, has fewer playoff games under its belt than the Penguins’ captain alone but is gaining confidence by the game.

Game 5 – or what is now essentially game one of a best-of-three series – is Saturday in Pittsburgh.

“We have to respond, and I expect that from our whole group,” Bylsma said. “We need everybody on board and everyone pulling to get the third and fourth wins in the series.”

“You put it behind you,” Adams said. “Each of the games have been comeback wins and, obviously, the other team has been able to move on and win the next one. It doesn’t feel good right now, but you wake up tomorrow morning and it’s still 2-2, no matter how you lost it.”

“It’s 2-2; we’re not in trouble here, we’re all right,” Fleury said. “Let’s go home, have some good meals, relax, practice and get back at it Saturday.”

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