PITTSBURGH — Columbus coach Todd Richards insists his upstart team isn’t in the playoffs “just to go to school.”
Maybe, but the Pittsburgh Penguins provided a pretty valuable lesson in perseverance during a 4-3 victory in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals on Wednesday night.
Down two after 21 minutes of slow and sometimes sloppy hockey, the Metropolitan Division champions responded by scoring the final three goals, including Brandon Sutter’s go-ahead wrist shot 8:18 into the third period.
“I think we expected a tight game,” Sutter said after the third playoff goal of his career. “They got up and we stuck with it. It was a good win.”
One that came with more than a few tense moments. Beau Bennett and Matt Niskanen scored power-play goals 45 seconds apart in the second period, erasing Pittsburgh’s two-goal deficit. Jussi Jokinen also scored for the Penguins and Marc-Andre Fleury overcame some shaky defence in front of him to stop 31 shots.
Game 2 is Saturday night.
“We have to learn from it but we found a way to win,” Pittsburgh forward Sidney Crosby said. “Obviously we didn’t start the way we wanted, getting down two goals. I think we have to clean up some things.”
If not, a series expected to be a romp could turn into something else entirely. Jack Johnson, Mark Letestu and Derek Mackenzie scored for the Blue Jackets, who remain in search of their first-ever playoff win. Sergei Bobrovsky finished with 28 saves but was handcuffed by Sutter’s knuckler at the end of a 2-on-1 break.
“I’ve seen Bob make that save a thousand times,” Richards said. “It just got by him.”
The Blue Jackets insisted they wouldn’t be intimidated despite Pittsburgh’s overwhelming edge in playoff experience and star power. The Penguins swept the five regular-season meetings between the teams, but Columbus surged after the Olympic break, rising to the seventh seed in the East while the injury-riddled Penguins coasted to a division title.
If the NHL’s youngest team was scared by the stage, it hardly showed.
Johnson gave the Blue Jackets their first-ever post-season lead 6:20 into the game. He charged to the front of the net, got a feed from Brandon Dubinsky and beat Fleury with a beautiful deke from forehand to backhand.
The Penguins answered with 2:51 left in the first when Evgeni Malkin — returning after missing three weeks with a foot injury — took advantage of a turnover by Fedor Tyutin and hit Jokinen in the slot. The knuckling wrist shot sailed over Bobrovsky’s right shoulder and Pittsburgh exhaled.
But only briefly. With Pittsburgh defenceman Rob Scuderi off for interference, the Blue Jackets went back in front 2-1 when Letestu jammed home a rebound and sent Columbus soaring into the dressing room.
“People were wondering how we would start the game with our inexperience, but we were pretty comfortable after the first period with a 2-1 lead and maybe let off the gas,” Columbus centre Ryan Johansen said.
Mackenzie got loose for a breakaway short-handed goal, pushing the advantage to 3-1 just 43 seconds into the second. But Columbus’ momentum then vanished against the league’s top power play.
Bennett tipped in a Niskanen slap shot 51 seconds after Mackenzie scored. Johnson was quickly whistled for interference and Niskanen needed only 10 seconds to even the game with a snap shot from the left circle.
Things settled down after the five goals in 5 minutes flurry, though Columbus didn’t exactly fold. The Blue Jackets carried play at times in the first two periods.
The Penguins righted themselves in the third. The miscues that plagued them for the first 40 minutes disappeared, replaced by the kind of responsible play they know they’ll need to make a serious run at the franchise’s fourth Stanley Cup.
“Nobody panicked,” Fleury said. “The power play was huge for us like it has been all season. It got us back in the game and from then we were in good shape.”