The Columbus Blue Jackets can finally jam with their postgame victory music and feel good about themselves.
“This team has played really well this year; has grown tremendously,” head coach John Tortorella said Tuesday morning. “I do not want them leaving tonight not enjoying a playoff win. And then we’ll talk about what we have to do.”
Part one of that equation is in the books, as the Blue Jackets beat the Penguins, 5-4, to avoid elimination in Game 4 and send what is now a 3-1, first-round playoff series back to Pittsburgh.
Columbus made several lineup changes prior to the game, subbing for 19-year-old defenseman Zach Werenski, out for the season with facial fractures sustained in Game 3, and scratching young blueliner Scott Harrington and underperforming veteran Scott Hartnell.
Pittsburgh, meanwhile, kept their start the same. For the fourth time in as many games, the Penguins came out slow, getting outshot by the Blue Jackets in the first period, 14-6, and outscored, 2-0.
“The start was, obviously, not very good,” said Penguins defenseman Ron Hainsey. “The whole first we got outplayed rather handily; didn’t create much. We got out of there with two, but it could’ve been worse. Flower [goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury] really had to make some saves.”
By 4:48 of the second frame, the Blue Jackets had taken a commanding, 3-0 lead.
“We just weren’t good enough, and you have to give them credit,” said head coach Mike Sullivan. “They come out with a lot of urgency. We certainly talked about it before the game, being ready.
“I don’t think we played the game the right way. You’ve got to stay on the right side of people. You’ve got to have some depth to your attack. You’ve got to reload on the 50-50 battles. And, if you don’t pay attention to those details, you’re going to give up odd-man rushes and high-quality chances.”
The Penguins fought back in the second to close the gap to 3-2, then traded goals with the Blue Jackets throughout the third period. Pittsburgh rookie Jake Guentzel got the final goal of the game with just 28 seconds remaining – but time ran out on the Penguins in a 5-4 loss.
“We were in the game all night long; we kept climbing back,” Sullivan said. “We had moments of the game where I think we had some momentum, we had some life, we were on the puck. And we showed glimpses of the game we wanted to try to get to, but not nearly consistently enough.”
“You earn your bounces, and they were better,” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “They earned the win. We didn’t have the desperation we needed to win the game.”
From Pittsburgh’s perspective, they fell short in the execution.
“Just hold onto the puck; get some offensive zone time,” Crosby said. “Make some better plays. Sometimes you’re not going to get zone time and constant pressure but, if you execute well, you’re in good position when you have to defend. They were able to generate chances tonight consistently and we didn’t defend as well as we needed to.”
Without paying attention to those details, the Penguins gave Columbus their most – and highest-quality – chances of the series so far. The Blue Jackets pounced on Penguins turnovers and got chances off the rush. That left Pittsburgh scrambling to rely on the skill and scoring they can often turn on at will.
This time, it wasn’t enough.
“It’s hard to score your way through the playoffs,” Sullivan said. “You’ve got to play the game the right way – defend make good decisions, be hard to play against. And I just don’t think we were as committed tonight as our team is accustomed to.”
“We’re up 3-1, but it’s been a competitive series,” said Hainsey, who played more regular-season games than any NHL player (906) before finally reaching the Stanley Cup playoffs, and notched his first postseason goal tonight. “They’ve had great starts in the games that we’ve weathered and then come back and played well for long stretches of time. It hasn’t been a one-team, dominant series to this point.
“We knew they were going to come out here and try to get just get one game. They had nothing to lose. They got the job done. We’ve got to regroup tomorrow and get ready for Thursday.”