For the third consecutive game in what has become a wild first-round matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets, a team cruised to a 3-1 lead. And, for the third consecutive game, the other team came all the way back to take a 4-3 win.
Monday it was the Blue Jackets, coming off their first postseason win in franchise history and hosting a sellout crowd of raucous fans who hadn’t seen playoff hockey since 2009, who pounced early. Center Boone Jenner opened the scoring just 1:38 in, defenseman Jack Johnson netted his third of the series less than two minutes later, and Columbus was out to a quick, 2-0 lead.
“Certainly that’s not the start we wanted, not the start we anticipated,” said head coach Dan Bylsma, who called an early timeout. “In some ways, we needed to reset.”
The Penguins finished the period strong, but – despite outshooting the home team 16-7 and getting three power-play chances – couldn’t find a goal.
It took Pittsburgh until 1.8 seconds remaining in the second period to get rewarded for their offensive pressure. And, in a series where the Penguins’ biggest offensive stars, like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and James Neal, have yet to generate much, it was defensive defenseman Brooks Orpik who produced the unlikely goal – much as he did in overtime of Game 6 against the New York Islanders to win last year’s first-round series – and turned the tide for his hockey team.
“The goal was big, but we were confident when we were down 2-0,” Orpik said. “We were playing the right way, just couldn’t get one by [Columbus goaltender Sergei] Bobrovsky who made a lot of big saves for them, but we just wanted to keep sticking with it and get as many shots on them as we could.”
Orpik’s goal was a beauty that included a spin move after taking a pass from forward Beau Bennett, the patience to wait for the defender to drop to block the shot, a toe-drag around him and, finally, a wrister past Bobrovsky.
“A spin-a-rama, toe-drag goal from Brooks,” Bylsma said. “Regardless of who it comes from, getting that goal right at the end of the second was really big for our team. You don’t know where you’re going to turn to to get it … and Brooks somehow comes up with the 13th or 14th [goal] of his career.”
When the Blue Jackets’ Cam Atkinson padded his team’s lead to 3-1 just 1:04 into the third period, the momentum of Orpik’s buzzer-beater appeared to be lost. But the Penguins just kept shooting, and three different forwards – Brandon Sutter, Lee Stempniak and Jussi Jokinen – found the net an incredible three times in a 2:13 span before the halfway point of the third.
“It was a lucky one for them on their third goal, and then you saw one bounce off their guy on our game-winner,” Orpik said. “Those are the kinds of goals you need.”
Pittsburgh made the 4-3 lead stand up, with particularly impressive efforts from goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and Jokinen to stop Columbus shots in the last minute of the contest, to take a 2-1 series lead.
The Penguins more than doubled the Blue Jackets’ shot total, outshooting Columbus 41-20 on the night, while the Blue Jackets focused on finishing their checks, outhitting Pittsburgh 65-32.
“I feel pretty good,” Orpik said. “I think the shots and the goals are what really matter. It definitely wears you down, but if you have the puck it’s tough to hit people, and I thought we had the puck a lot tonight. If they want to win that stat, then that’s good for them. Physicality is always a big part of the postseason, but you can look at that a little too closely.”
The Penguins still have plenty of room for improvement – for example, a power-play that went 0-for-6 on the night and some of the game’s biggest offensive weapons having yet to find the net in the series. But, after Game 3, few could question their resilience.
“We knew they were going to come hard and, early on, we had to try to match it, and I thought we did a great job responding,” Sutter said. “I thought we did a lot of good things; we stayed the course and even our power play looked a lot better, getting pucks to the net. [Despite not scoring], we definitely got some momentum from it.”
They also got some momentum from their goaltender who, with strong efforts in all three games so far, is making strides toward redeeming his poor postseason a year ago.
“I tried to forget that [first] one, and the other one, and start the next one,” Fleury said of how he regained focus after falling into a quick, 2-0 hole. “One shot at a time, try to keep us in the game, make the next save. I always figure we can come back in games, and we did tonight.”
“I thought Marc-Andre Fleury was completely outstanding tonight, again,” Sutter said. “He made a lot of good saves to keep us in it.”
Game 4 is Wednesday in Columbus.