You couldn’t blame the Blue Jackets if Sid and the Kids are in their heads.
Columbus came out for Game 2 of their first-round series in Pittsburgh with another strong start, firing the first nine shots at goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. Fleury, still in for the injured Matt Murray, was up to the task.
Then the Penguins went the other way.
When Blue Jackets defenseman Seth Jones tried to make a pass in the Penguins’ zone that slipped by its intended recipient and went up ice, Pittsburgh’s Conor Sheary was there to collect it. He got it to linemate Jake Guentzel, who got it to centerman Sidney Crosby, parked in wide-open space at the side of the net. Crosby’s slam dunk gave the Penguins a 1-0 lead at 8:31, on their first shot of the game.
That was the beginning of what would be another long night for Columbus in Pittsburgh.
“Both games, our start was a little slower than we’d like,” Crosby said. “But they come hard, finish hits, they’re fast and they create turnovers. I thought that, once we got settled into the speed, we did a good job creating chances and defending pretty well.”
The Blue Jackets’ Brandon Saad tied it 7 minutes into the second period with a pretty, high-shelf shot over Fleury, but the tie lasted all of 51 seconds as defenseman Ian Cole got the puck up ice to Crosby, who returned the earlier favor to Guentzel with a cross-ice pass for a one-timer. Guentzel’s first NHL playoff goal made it 2-1 in favor of the Penguins.
“Sid was at another level tonight, so he makes us that much better,” Guentzel said.
By the end of the second, the Blue Jackets led 28-19 in shots, 55-35 in shot attempts and 44-19 in hits, yet still trailed on the scoreboard.
An end-of-period scrum broke out between the teams, centered around Pittsburgh defenseman Ian Cole and Crosby nemesis Brandon Dubinsky. But, when the teams left the ice, only a two-minute roughing penalty to Dubinsky stuck, and Pittsburgh would start the third on the power play.
“It’s everything we expected it to be,” Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan said. “We knew we were going to play a physical team. I didn’t really see what happened in the second period because it’s the blind spot on the bench. But the referees are going to do their job; we’re going to do ours.”
The Penguins added to their lead just one second after that man-advantage expired, with Cole and Crosby again combining to set up a goal. This one came from Evgeni Malkin, who fired it from a sharp angle through goalie Sergei Bobrovsky’s pads.
Forward Patric Hornqvist iced it with an empty-net goal at 19:14 and, 11 seconds later, Columbus took a frustration penalty as winger Matt Calvert broke his stick on a cross-check to the neck of Pittsburgh’s Tom Kuhnhackl. The game ended with another late scrum, with two Blue Jackets – Boone Jenner and former Penguins prospect Scott Harrington – taking 10-minute misconducts.
“I don’t really have thoughts” on the Calvert infraction, Sullivan said. “We’re going to play the game. Our team’s at its best when we play between the whistles and we play hard, and that’s what I like about this group we have. I think they’re focused, they’re determined and we’ll just keep playing the game that we’re trying to play.”
Columbus ended the game with a big advantage in all of those aforementioned stats. But the Penguins led in their commitment to blocking shots (23 to 13), in crucial faceoff wins to drive puck possession (57 to 43 percent) and, most importantly, on the final scoreboard, 4-1.
Simply put, the Blue Jackets are doing most everything they’re trying to do but, so far, the Penguins’ skill is rising to the top.
“I thought everybody in our lineup played their ass off tonight,” Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella said. “I thought we did a lot of the things we wanted to do. Eighty shot attempts. I loved the way we forechecked. I’m proud of our club – the way they’ve handled themselves, the way they did all the things that we’re asking them to do. We’ll see them tomorrow, lick our wounds and face off again.”
For Pittsburgh, the Crosby line is leading the way.
“They’re three very good players,” Sullivan said. “They play the game with a lot of courage. They go to the battle areas. They’ve got great hockey sense. And they’re quick; they’re hard to defend. They’re really a dynamic line underneath the hash marks; they play that give-and-go game in the tight space and they’re so elusive.
“I think, when they’re in that offensive zone, they’re as dangerous a line as there is in the game right now.”
The Penguins are also getting strong goaltending. Fleury has stopped 70 of the 72 shots he’s faced since coming in as a surprise Game 1 starter. Bobrovsky, the league’s third-winningest goalie in the regular season, has allowed seven goals on 61 shots.
“It was good today,” Fleury said. “I was more comfortable, more relaxed a bit. It just feels good to be able to contribute to the team.”
“He was solid,” Crosby said. “They get a lot of traffic to the net; he’s got to battle through bodies and deflections and things like that. Tonight he made some good saves off deflections that weren’t easy.”
The series shifts to Columbus on Sunday, where the Blue Jackets hope to translate their strong starts, shot advantage, physicality and home advantage at Nationwide Arena into success.
“They’re a great hockey team and they battle hard,” Cole said. “We know it’s going to be a challenge going back to Columbus. We’re going to look at the tape for this game and break it down to see what we can improve on, so we can maybe better our starts. They tend to get a lot of shots in the first period, and we’d like to limit those.”