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.