Watching Evgeni Malkin at Monday’s morning skate in Columbus, James Neal, his usual linemate, had a feeling the superstar center was on the verge of busting out of a goalless drought dating back 10 playoff games.
“I think I could see it coming; everything he shot was going in the back of the net,” Neal said. “We talked about it; he’s got to shoot the puck more, and you saw that tonight. Sid and Kuni [captain Sidney Crosby and linemate Chris Kunitz] made some great plays to him but, with his finish, he’s hard to stop.”
Malkin shot the puck more, all right, doubling up any other teammate with six shots on goal in Game 6. And three of them hit the back of the net, giving Malkin a hat trick by late in the second period and – along with a beauty of an individual effort from forward Brandon Sutter – helping the Penguins build a 4-0 lead.
For the first time in the series, the young Blue Jackets looked overwhelmed by Pittsburgh’s significant advantage in playoff experience and its star forwards with the capability to take over a game. In a wild series where no 3-1 or 3-0 lead was safe, this time felt different, like the Penguins were simply throwing too much at Columbus for them to recover.
Then, at 10:21 of the third period, Blue Jackets defenseman Fedor Tyutin got his team on the board with a shorthanded goal. Three and a half minutes later, forward Artem Anisimov cashed in on a Columbus power play and, just over a minute after that, forward Nick Foligno, the overtime hero in Game 4, had, incredibly, brought the Blue Jackets within a goal.
“We played the power play against and we did not play right,” said Malkin, who was not on the ice for Tyutin’s shorthanded goal but was for the third goal of the Blue Jackets’ rally. “It’s the playoffs and we need to understand how important [it is] to play 60 minutes. We just lose focus and three goals.”
With nearly five minutes still remaining in regulation, Columbus had plenty of time to try to tie the contest. And now it was the relentless Blue Jackets throwing everything they had at the Penguins in an effort to do just that, with the fans at Nationwide Arena cheering them on and chanting “CBJ” to the point of near delirium.
“It’s what we talked about – the building was going to be loud in here, it was going to be an exciting atmosphere,” Neal said. “With their backs against the wall, they’re going to give it all they’ve got, and they definitely did that. They played us tough every game, all series long, and right to the last minute they were pushing to tie it up.”
Somehow, the Penguins found a way to hold on, winning the game, 4-3, and the series, 4-2.
“You can feel the momentum changing; the fans get into it goal after goal,” Kunitz said. “But, the last three or four minutes, I think we did a good job – not playing on our heels, make sure to go back for pucks, get it over the blue line, put pucks deep – and I think we matched their intensity the last couple minutes when they really made that big push. We’ve got to start playing 60-minute games, but we found a way to survive one of the toughest rounds, getting out of the first.”
Perhaps most important to surviving that late surge was goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who has remained confident despite being under intense scrutiny since his miscue in the waning seconds of regulation and 55-foot overtime goal cost Pittsburgh what appeared to be a sure win in Game 4.
“A good job by Flower,” Neal said. “He played great, stood tall in the net for us.”
“It was a good test,” said Fleury, who won his first playoff series in four years. “I think I’ve got to stay relaxed, stay calm and not chase the play too much. Not try to go for the big saves; wait for the pucks to come to me. I think I got a few good saves in there, and just happy to get a win at the end.”
Now Pittsburgh awaits the winner of the New York Rangers-Philadelphia Flyers series, which could wrap up as early as Tuesday if the Rangers clinch. The Penguins will welcome the time off for rest – they lost centers Sutter and Joe Vitale to injury in Game 6 – and practice as they try to build on lessons learned from a hard-fought series against the wildcard Blue Jackets, who gave them nearly all they could handle over six games, all but one of which were decided by a 4-3 score.
“I think, being the favorite, everybody expects so much from your team [and expects you] to win in four,” Fleury said. “But every team that makes the playoffs, there’s a reason why they do. This team came hard at us for six games and I think they showed us how good we have to play to win games. I think, the last two games, we played very good, very hard and found ways to get the win.”