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.”