Nobody told the Columbus Blue Jackets they were supposed to be intimidated.
In Wednesday’s opening game of their first-round playoff series, the youngest team in the NHL fielded 12 forwards who, combined, had about a dozen fewer postseason games under their belts than Sidney Crosby, the Penguins’ 26-year-old captain.
As a franchise, the Blue Jackets were making only the second playoff appearance of their 13-year history, with the previous outing ending in eight days with a four-game sweep by the Detroit Red Wings. Their head coach, Todd Richards – who once hired Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma as his assistant at Pittsburgh’s AHL affiliate in Wilkes Barre/Scranton – was among the team’s playoff rookies.
But, unlike a similarly young group of Penguins who looked like deer caught in the bright lights when they opened their first playoff series at Ottawa in 2007, the Blue Jackets showed no fear. They kept their composure, stuck with their game plan, took a quick 1-0 lead and, by the opening minute of the second period, built a 3-1 cushion.
That third Columbus goal – an unassisted, shorthanded tally by center Derek Mackenzie, a 32-year-old veteran making his NHL playoff debut – could have turned out the lights on the Penguins. But, before the power play expired, defenseman Matt Niskanen set up forward Beau Bennett for a quick response to pull Pittsburgh within one. A few seconds later, the Penguins drew an interference call on Columbus blueliner Jack Johnson, and Niskanen cashed in with a goal of his own to make it a 3-3 game.
“We gave up a shorty and you could feel pretty deflated,” Niskanen said. “Special teams are an opportunity to gain momentum, and we don’t want to give up shorthanded goals. But a good response from our team; we get a couple to get back in the game, and I think our five-on-five game started to roll from there as well.”
Niskanen’s presence on the power play – where he spent 2:02 on the night, more than any Penguin other than Crosby or Evgeni Malkin – helped key that response.
“I seemed to get some good looks at the net,” Niskanen said. “I was trying to find shooting lanes, I was able to find Beau’s stick and he made a heck of a nice tip, and then just a quick shot that I think surprised [Columbus goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky] on the second one. I got to play a little more on that power play tonight than I anticipated, but I’ll enjoy that.”
The game remained deadlocked until 8:18 of the third period, when Bennett – dropped to the third line with center Brandon Sutter after head coach Dan Byslma decided to try the speed of Brian Gibbons on the first line with Crosby – exploited a Columbus turnover to set up his new linemate for a wrister that put the Penguins ahead for good.
“[Columbus] came hard [early in the game],” Niskanen said. “They forechecked hard; they’re physical. We came out together in the third period. We worked the puck out, [made] short passes, and their D were pinching so you knew at one point we’re going to catch them. And, sure enough, Suttsy finds that big goal on kind of a two-on-one break.”
“Kind of a broken play in the neutral zone; they had a turnover and I saw Beau turn with it. I just tried to get skating, get my feet going,” Sutter said. “He made a good play to me, I decided to shoot it and it went in. It’s a good feeling.”
From there, the Penguins – and, perhaps most importantly, starting goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, pulled from last year’s playoffs when he faltered – were able to withstand late pressure from the Blue Jackets to preserve the one-goal win.
“It was fun. Stressful. A great feeling to get the win, though, in the end,” Fleury said, admitting to nerves early on. “I did [feel nervous]; I think most guys do when playoffs start. A tough start, they got two goals in the first, but I tried to stay calm, stay with it. And, the more shots in the game, the more comfortable I felt.”
And the Penguins, who said there were no easy games against the Blue Jackets even as they swept them, 5-0, in the regular-season series, got exactly what they expected from a young, hungry Columbus team.
“They play hard, they’ve got a good goaltender, they’re a well-balanced team,” Sutter said. “It’s going to be a tough series. We expect one-goal games; those are playoff games. Those are the ones we’re proud to win. Game 2 is going to be the same thing.”
“They compete really hard. They get to the front of the net; they’re going to be after our top guys all night long,” Bennett said. “We had a shaky first and start of the second, but I think we weathered the storm pretty good down the stretch.
“We haven’t had a meaningful game in a couple weeks now, and they’ve been playing playoff hockey for two months [to earn a wild-card spot]. It’s good to get that one under the belt, good to get a win out of it, and now we know what we need to do from here on in.”