Rapidly maturing Blue Jackets pushing Penguins
PITTSBURGH– Dan Byslma can understand getting outplayed. It happens to even the most experienced hockey teams during the long slog postseason slog to the Stanley Cup.
The one thing the Pittsburgh coach can’t abide is getting outworked, something that Bylsma has watched happen far too often in the opening round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Heavily favored to take care of the upstart Columbus Blue Jackets in short order, the Penguins are home for Game 5 on Saturday night with the series knotted at two partly because they haven’t done enough dirty work, their stars included.
More than a dozen periods into the playoffs, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have yet to find the back of net. And while Pittsburgh’s depth has allowed them to survive, the Penguins understand their season could be cut short the two engines that drive the Metropolitan Division champions don’t get going.
“Do they need to score goals? Do we need more?” Bylsma said Thursday. “They’re our best players. We need more from our whole team and we need more from them.”
Pittsburgh didn’t get quite enough of it in a 4-3 overtime loss in Game 4. The Penguins raced to a three-goal lead only to have the Blue Jackets rally to tie it on Brandon Dubinsky’s goal with 22 seconds left in regulation after Pittsburgh goalie Marc-Andre Fleury misplayed a puck behind the net.
It was the kind of miscue Fleury had avoided throughout much of the series, one that was compounded when Nick Foligno’s wrist shot from more than 40 feet beat Fleury to give the Blue Jackets their first home playoff victory in franchise history.
While Fleury insisted afterward he will have no trouble moving on, Bylsma knows his occasionally erratic netminder needs to respond. Fleury has struggled in the playoffs since helping the Penguins win the Stanley Cup in 2009 and was benched during last spring’s run to the conference finals in favor of veteran backup Tomas Vokoun.
This time, there is no help coming.
“Unfortunately, a mistake with the bouncing puck there behind the net cost us in the last 30 seconds of the game,” Bylsma said. “But he was our best player in the game. He has to rebound from that now, as does our team.”
Restoring some of the flow to their highly skilled game would help. The Blue Jackets have done an excellent job at disrupting Pittsburgh’s rhythm, particularly when the game is at even strength. Bylsma’s biggest concern is the reticence he sees from his players when forced to play in tight areas.
“We get up three goals in the game and they were the team that worked and competed and out battled us for most of the duration of the game,” Bylsma said. “It wasn’t perfect for them but our (compete level) has got to be raised. It’s got to be up to a level that’s necessary this time of year.”
It hasn’t been good enough long enough for the Penguins, who swept all five games from the Blue Jackets during the regular season. Bylsma downplayed the lopsided results and Columbus has spent the last four games showing just how narrow the gap is between one of the league’s elite and a team that had never won a single playoff game before last weekend.
The Blue Jackets have proven to be fast learners. Overwhelmed in the opening 15 minutes on Wednesday, they responded with the kind of gritty play it takes to survive.
“The more we can get ourselves in these moments the more it pays off,” Columbus coach Todd Richards said. “Whether it’s later on in this series or if we’re lucky enough to win this series, it may help you in the next series or as you move on in the playoffs.”
It’s a notion that seemed borderline preposterous a week ago. Now, not so much.
“This is playoff hockey, man, it’s the best,” Foligno said. Anything can happen. You’re seeing that each and every game. Just got to stick with it and believe in yourself and we’re having a lot of fun.”