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.”