It was billed as a potentially career defining game for Marc-Andre Fleury, Dan Bylsma and probably a dozen other players hanging in the balance. The weight of expectations and the fear of losing seemed to paralyze the Pens and only confound their mistakes.
And it could have been the case early in the game when Fleury lunged at a loose puck. It appeared he got to it, but somehow it got jammed out and into the waiting Boone Jenner who had an easy slam-dunk goal.
Down just 1-0 that weight was back, the building seemed visibly tense in the stands with nervous fans. The players shrugged it off and went back to work, widely outshooting Columbus over all three periods. Chris Kunitz would tie the game in the second period, finding a loose puck in front of Sergei Bobrovsky and putting it behind him.
Then in the third period, Jussi Jokinen was the the front of the net and put home another rebound, after some great work from Brandon Sutter and Lee Stempniak.
This time, the Pens wouldn't blow the lead. Kris Letang capped the scoring with an empty netter and just like that, what appeared to be a shaky grasp on the playoffs turned into a pretty solid series lead for Pittsburgh. It was a good night indeed.
A few more thoughts on the game:
- Brooks Orpik was a scratch for the game. Without hearing the official report we can probably already guess it: undisclosed injury, day-to-day, so we'll have to wait and see for his participation in the near future. My total guess: if it's bad enough for Orpik to miss a playoff game, it's probably not something he can play with in a day or two.
- Without Orpik, the Pens turned to Kris Letang to skate with Paul Martin and pickup a bigger role. And Letang didn't disappoint playing a team-high 22:18 at even strength (and 24:18 overall) with a really good, solid night in his own end, often times it seemed against Ryan Johansen. Johansen had his quietest game of the series while playing Letang for 8.2 ES minutes and maybe that is no coincidence.
- The Olli Maatta / Matt Niskanen pair also got leaned on a little heavier, with each playing about 18 ES minutes and 20+ overall, higher than their earlier series workload. Both did their jobs excellently as well- each having a 68%+ Corsi For % on the night.
- Every single Penguin skater had a shot on goal tonight. Only 2 (Rob Scuderi and Marcel Goc) didn't have multiple shots on goal. Dominating effort for Pittsburgh to throw so much rubber Bobrovsky's way.
- Brandon Sutter was probably the best and most consistent forward. He made several of the hustle plays that aren't quantified on the stat-sheet but he had some concrete numbers too. The assist to generate the GWG, 4 shots on goal (with 2 more shot attempts blocked), 2 hits, 1 blocked shot and a team high 10 faceoff wins on a night he took 15 draws. Great night for Sutter who was an amazing 77.8% in Corsi For on the night
- For all the talk of the Sidney Crosby slump, El Sid had 6 shots on goal with 5 more missing the net. Regardless of whether you're frustrated about the lack of goal scoring, seeing Crosby have 11 shot attempts has to be considered a positive. Sooner or later he's gotta break free and get something, right?
- Almost from the get go, Bylsma played Crosby with a new right winger: Evgeni Malkin. The success varied, they didn't score but did dominate possession. Several times both Crosby and Malkin made poor decisions with their puck management in the neutral zone, resulting in turnovers. Gotta take the good with the bad with skill, and they play the puck so much there's a lot more chances for mistakes, but ideally you'd like to see a little more consistency out of them.
- Another casualty of the Malkin/Crosby combo is James Neal. He doesn't get to play with talent, and often times was invisible, recording only 1 shot on goal (with 5 more attempts) and no other contributions on the scoresheet. And, due to the 3F, 2D power play unit, Neal's been pushed off the top PP. He's too good and could add too much to become a forgotten man or, at least an abandoned one playing with inferior players.
- Kunitz had the 2 points, 7 more shots on goal and 6 hits on his way to being the first star of the game. By far his best game of the series and his goal early took a huge weight off his teammate's shoulders.
- Birthday boy Craig Adams had 5 hits, 2 shots on goal and his diving hustle play to make Letang's empty netter possible. Not a bad way to welcome in turning 37.
- For only the 2nd time in his last 11 playoff appearances, Fleury allowed less than 3 goals. Hey, it's something. And even though this win was largely due to the Pens keeping the puck out of their own defensive zone and away from Columbus, you know what...The team owed Fleury that after he made 40+ saves in two of the last three games before tonight.
- This has been a crazy series for holding leads, and the team that scored first tonight, for the 5th game in a row, ended up losing the game. I'm not going to hope the Pens give up another first goal in Game 6, but even if they do we've seen it's meaningless to take a lead in this series because it's probably going to change hands.
- Figures that the guy with a plastic rat in his locker, Matt Calvert, tries to stir the pot by starting a little scrum/fight after the final whistle. There hasn't been a ton of that in this series, unlike seemingly every other playoff series going on this year. After playing 5 games (and change with OT's) it's about time these guys start to not like each other.
Fancy stat story of the game:
``The Pens absolutely crushed it after Columbus went up 1-0, and just ran away with shot attempts from there on out. We were wondering how the Pens would respond to a Game 4 disappointment, and even after the early hiccup, they answered the bell big time.
Pensburgh 3 Stars
3. Kris Letang 2. Brandon Sutter 1. Chris Kunitz
Pensburgh Goats of the Game
Not many tonight on this complete effort game where the Corsi total was 82-45 on the night for the good guys. The goal against was pretty bad on Fleury, who could have fallen apart due to it...But he definitely responded and stopped everything else he saw, so good for him.
Now, we head back to Columbus with the first potential elimination game of the season. Expect the Columbus crowd to give the Blue Jackets even more energy as they fight and claw to extend their year. The Pens will probably need their best effort yet in order to end it. Tonight provided a real great place to start.