The playoffs are finally back and damn did it feel good. I was lucky enough to have some tickets to last nights game and it was well worth the price of admission. It wasn't necessarily a great game from the Penguins but as the game wore along you could get the feel that this was the Blue Jackets first rodeo in the postseason and while they came out strong they struggled late and the Penguins capitalized.
The Blue Jackets really came out blazing and it almost seemed like they wanted to prove they weren't going to be push around and scared and it worked. Jack Johnson opened up the scoring for Columbus almost six and a half minutes into the game when Brandon Dubinsky came into the zone and made Paul Martin looked really foolish and got the ball to
The Penguins got on the board when Jussi Jokinen took a pretty unreal pass from Evgeni Malkin and somehow got the puck through what seemed like all of the Blue Jackets player in uniform and beat Sergei Bobrovsky. Seriously, look at this gif and you can see four Blue Jackets players in the picture when Jokinen had the puck. No idea how this got through with little trouble.
The fun didn't last all that long as Columbus took the lead back 45 seconds later when Mark Letestu found the back of the net on the power play. Rob Scuderi doesn't take too many penalties but he took an iffy interference call and it only took Columbus 15 seconds to tie the game back up. It really was an ugly play as there was one Penguins defenseman caught behind the net (Brooks Oprpik) and the other was was also behind the net (Paul Martin) before recovering just in time to see the puck in the back of the net. Look up how to not kill a penalty and this was probably it.
The Penguins go their first power play opportunity of the night as the first period expired. They nearly had a full power play as the second period opened up but it was Columbus who made them pay. Kris Letang wasn't able to handle the puck at the blue line which gave Derek MacKenzie a breakaway. He beat Fleury. 3-1 on the shorty. Bad times.
That is when it seemed like the flip switched. The Penguins got a redirection goal by Beau Bennett on the same power play that MacKenzie scored and then the Penguins got another power play goal 45 seconds later when Matt Niskanen scored from the left dot and tied the game. The one thing Columbus couldn't do was give the Penguins too many chances on the power play and they gave the Penguins too many chances on the power play.
The game was starting to tilt in the Penguins favor and it looked like the Blue Jackets were running out of gas. As we got into the third period things started to take shape. That is when Brandon Sutter, who was outstanding all night, won it.
Here are some other thoughts about the game.
- Brandon Sutter was one of the best players on the ice last night for the Penguins and he skated his balls off. He only had about 13:30 of ice time but every time he was on the ice he was making something happen. The stats aren't really going to show that he had a good game (38.5% Corsi for in all situations) but I thought he was a vital role is last nights game on a third line that switched up about halfway through the game. I think some of the low advanced statistical numbers have to be looked at in context through. Sutter started 91% of his shifts in the defensive zone. For context, that is a ridiculously high number. Bottom line is Sutter was really good tonight.
- Evgeni Malkin hadn't played a game in some time thanks to an injured foot but he was flying all game. He made a great pass to set up the first goal and was the most noticeable Penguin on the ice in the first period when most of his teammates weren't playing a good hockey game. He had a pair of assists and every time his line was on the ice they had a chance to score. Malkin had a CF% of 60% in 5v5 situations and when he was on the ice a lot more stuff was happening in the Columbus end than was in the Pittsurgh end. Exactly what you expected to happen when he came back and teams couldn't completely load up to stop one big line. They now have to do that twice.
- Brian Gibbons was very, very good. Maybe the best player on the ice for the Penguins on the night. He didn't get a lot of ice time (11:45) but he was playing well enough that he was tossed up to the first line to play with Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz. He drew two penalties for the Penguins and was a beat on the penalty kill. In 5v5 situations he was the Penguins second best Corsi player (64%) and what he brought to the table last night was big time.
- It has been well documented that MAF has struggled in the playoffs in some kind of big way. Things didn't start out all that well for MAF last night despite some big time breakdowns by his teammates in front of him but when he needed to step up and close the fort he did. After the shorthanded goal to open up the second period he was perfect and despite some help from the post on one occasion he was the reason that the Penguins got the win in regulation. The Blue Jackets came really hard at the end and he had to make a couple of tough saves, and he did. I still don't think we know if this is something we should expect going forward because it is just one game but it was nice to see him not totally implode like he has in the past.
- The power play was deadly good. If the Blue Jackets want to have a chance in this series then they are not going to want to take penalties. Columbus got sloppy at the onset of the second period and while they scored the shorthanded goal they had to kill two Penguins power plays and they didn't stop either of them. The Penguins tied the scored on those power plays and eventually won the game. It is no secret that the Penguins rely on their power play for a lot of their offense so when you do that you need to cash in. Cash in they did.
- Matt Niskanen is going to get ridiculous amounts of money this offseason. He was absolutely outstanding on the ice and was easily the Penguins best defenseman on the ice. Not only was he solid on the defensive end but he scored a power play goal and assessed on the other PP goal. When he came over with James Neal in the trade a few years ago not a lot of people gave it much thought but he has really turned into a really good player for this team and with some of the defenseman not playing very well this year he's stepped up in a big way.
The Not So Good
- I talked about the power play being really good but truth be told the special teams were really up and down the entire game. In a 2-1 game with almost a full power play on a fresh sheet of ice you can't give up a shorthanded goal. The Penguins did that. They also looked completely lost on the Columbus first power play goal. I think overall the special teams did a good job, especially late in the game where they dominated the Columbus power play, but there are absolutely things that need to be worked on.
- Kris Letang had a forgettable game. He took two really bad penalties and was actually luck that he wasn't given a five minute major for spearing Boone Jenner while the Penguins were on a power play. WHILE THE PENGUINS WERE ON A POWER PLAY. Letang was yanked off the top power play unit early thanks to the shorthanded goal he helped give up and he seemed to be out of his element for stretches of the game. He was nearly an even Corsi player for the game in 5v5 situations but 75% of his zone starts came in the offensive end. He needs to be better than that.
- The Penguins were wildly sloppy with the puck, especially at the beginning of the game. Overall they turned the puck over 10 times and misplayed some pucks that turned into odd man rushes the other way. They were reckless and careless at times and it led them to being down two goals. While they were able to come back and win they can't make a habit of doing this.
- Paul Martin's first period. Yikes. He got turned inside out on Johnson's first goal and then was wandering around aimlessly for the Blue Jackets second goal. He got much better as the game went on but that was a forgettable first period for Martin. Not something that we have seen a lot of out of him so I am not overly worried.
- Rob Scuderi really struggled. He got a lot of offensive zone starts (60%) and was the Penguins second worst Corsi player in 5v5 situations (45.2%). He and Brooks Orpik (who was also not very good last night) have been struggling for a good while and when Letang struggled as much as he did tonight you have to have one, or both, of those two play better than they did.
- Normally I only talk about Penguins players and play here but the Blue Jackets needed Bobrovsky to play really well and he played really bad. He was probably one of the worst players on the ice last night for Columbus and when you goaltender struggles you aren't going to have a good chance to win. Three of the four goals he gave up last night were pretty soft and for as much as the two Columbus fans sitting next to me at the game last night wanted to talk about "Playoff Fleury" maybe they should be a little more worried about Playoff Bobrovsky.
Other Odds and Ends
- The Jackets came out and laid the wood. They outhit the Penguins 48-27. I don't think that is necessarily a good thing because the only chance you have to hit is when you don't have the puck and when you don't have the puck you can't score. That being said I think we all knew coming in that Columbus was going to try to get physical, and they did. Dubinsky (nine) and Jenner (seven) combined for 16 hits and you bet this is going to be a trend that they try to get to continue. The Penguins did a pretty good job of not getting too worked up about it so that is definitely a positive.
- The Penguins got a lot better as the game went on. Above I talked about the fact that it looked like Columbus ran out of gas and that might have something to do with the playoff atmosphere. I never got the sense that the Penguins pressed, even after being down 3-1, and they just let the game come to them. They nearly dominated the second half of the game and the score reflects that. Now, lets try to get better in the first half of the game.
- The officiating was a little weird tonight. I don't think that is really a complaint but there were numerous interference calls on both sides that weren't being called in the regular season. For as tight as they called some of the game tonight they would get away from that for periods where they would let the teams play. It was, odd. Not good odd or bad odd, just the way officiating can be when there is a human element.
- The Penguins got ripped in the face-off circle early in the game but as they started to turn play around that flipped. They ended up winning the face-off battle 40-31 and that played a role in the outcome of the game, at least in my opinion.
- For what it is worth I thought the gold out looked really sharp and went over really well. The CONSOL crowd usually gets a lot of guff from Penguins fans for not being a good atmosphere but I thought there was some great energy in the building last night and it was a blast to be at.
Overall I don't think the Penguins played a great game but they got the win. They are really going to need to tighten up in a lot of different aspects if they want others games in this series but the truth remains that a win is a win and you will take it however they come. With two days off I anticipate there will be a lot of adjustments made, even if they are small, and we see a better team come out of the game on Saturday.