The game started out rough, Brandon Dubinsky walked around Paul Martin and then found a wide open Jack Johnson who had plenty of time to deke to his backhand and beat Marc-Andre Fleury for the first goal of the game. The Pens would strike back when Evgeni Malkin made a great pass to Jussi Jokinen in the center of the ice for a goal, but the very next shift Rob Scuderi took a penalty and ex-Penguin Mark Letestu scored a goal to give Columbus a 2-1 lead after one.
The Penguins started the second period on the power play, but Kris Letang lost the puck and Derek MacKenzie skated by him. MacKenzie appeared to fan a little on his shot, but the off-speed effort on the breakaway was enough to confound Fleury.
It was 3-1 Jackets, with Fleury looking shaky and unable to keep the puck out of his net, Letang making mistakes and the Pens searching for answers. Luckily they would find them, and find them very quickly.
Head coach Dan Bylsma made an adjustment (!!!) and Matt Niskanen salvaged what was left of the power play when he purposefully took a low point shot that Beau Bennett was able to deflect in past Sergei Bobrovsky. Then the next shift, Jack Johnson took a penalty and Niskanen scored a goal to tie the game.
Just like that, what looked like a familiar, sad slippery slope had turned into a tie game. Both teams settled down from there and no goals would be scored until the third period when Brandon Sutter streaked down the right side and put a nice shot by old Bob.
The Pens held on for dear life from there, with Fleury making a solid save on Ryan Murray from the top of the circles with 1:03 left to help preserve the win. It wasn't pretty, but it counts just the same as if it was.
A few more thoughts on the game:
- All eyes were on Fleury and after letting in three goals in the first 21 minutes of the game, it looked like another disaster in the making. Even if none were necessarily his fault, Fleury's confidence didn't look great and he was fighting the puck throughout the night. Still, he stood tall, and dare we say , showed some mental strength to hang in there. Good on him.
- But, again, let's not forget Game 1 last year Fleury pitched a shutout before totally s'ing the bed in Games 2-4. We're not out of the woods by any means, but many other people need to point the finger at themselves for poor games.
- Paul Martin looked terrible on the first goal against, and wasn't great on the second either. But he ended the night with two assists, including swatting the puck away from an on-rushing Jacket that ended up springing the Pens for Sutter's goal. A nice recovery for #7.
- Not so nice for #58. Letang coughed up the puck on the PP for a goal against (and saw his spot on the #1 unit vanish) and then took two obvious and fairly mentally weak calls against. It's difficult because he looked so great in his first few games returning from a stroke, but obviously no one has any sympathy for him when he's on the ice. He's got to be better and smarter with his decisions.
- Columbus officially outhit the Penguins 48-27. The pressure of the CBJ forecheck was the story of the game. Brandon Dubinsky had 9 hits, Boone Jenner had 7. The Pens are going to have to buy themselves more space by moving the puck quicker and adjusting breakouts to compensate for the aggressive and physical nature of Columbus.
- On the good side, Evgeni Malkin looked amazing in his first game since March 23rd. He had jump, made great decisions with the puck on his stick and tracked well through the neutral zone. I don't think any Pens fans were necessarily worried with his form in return from injury, but it was nice to see Malkin able to play so strongly.
- And Matt Niskanen. Oh man. He's gonna be a very, very rich man this summer, and for good reason. His play with the puck in the second period put the Penguins in position to win the game. Good for him.
- Bennett was also a tremendous player. Early in the game he leveled Murray with a clean hit, bloodying Murray's nose. BB19 also had a two point night and was active all over the nice.
- Brian Gibbons penalty tracker: 2 drawn tonight. The li'l guy used his speed to his advantage.
- And, as we mentioned in the story, Bylsma has to be credited for his changes. He shifted Gibbons to the top line (where neither Crosby nor Chris Kunitz seemed to play that great) and Bennett down to the 3rd- a move that paid off with Bennett's pass to Sutter for the G-double u- G. And any moves that drop Tanner Glass to the 4th line is a big thumbs up.
- We hate people that complain about the refs, but a very inconsistent night for them. They called a tight game, then let everything go (including when Sutter got tripped on a clean breakaway) and then started calling it tight again.
- The Pens were getting killed in the faceoff circle early (7 of 24 at one point) but then rebounded late to win faceoffs big time. And they also were out-shooting the Jackets 10-4 at one point in the third (though it would tighten to 10-9 with Columbus pushing for the game-tying goal that never came).
- Talking with our buds at The Cannon they thought (and hoped) Bobrovsky would be great. He wasn't. Niskanen's goal was pretty weak through his 5-hole and Sutter blew a puck by him. Bob may well be better in Game 2. He'll definitely need to be.
Welp, welcome back to the playoffs. With 2 full days off, Pittsburgh has plenty of adjustments to make. They could use altering their strategies to match the aggressive play of Columbus. They can address some systematic issues for to help their breakouts and how their defense might go about playing the puck behind the net to setup the breakout. Personnel switches used tonight could continue, since it seemed successful.
Either way, it's always a good thing to win a playoff game, and the Penguins did it tonight. Hopefully the next time out they can do it a little more convincingly.