COLUMBUS, Ohio – R.J. Umberger, one of the few Columbus Blue Jackets with playoff experience, thinks he knows what the Pittsburgh Penguins are thinking as they go for a knockout in Game 6 tonight.
“Oh, there’s no doubt they don’t want to go to Game 7,” Umberger said Sunday, a day after the Penguins grabbed a 3-2 lead in the first-round Stanley Cup series. “Before we even started, they were probably looking who they were going to play next anyway.”
The Penguins, nursing a M.A.S.H. unit of injuries all season, could use an extra day or two to rest before Round 2. Star defenseman Brooks Orpik didn’t play on Saturday night.
Pittsburgh is brimming with confidence coming off a 3-1 victory at home on Saturday night in which it played with more swagger, more physicality and more aggression than in the previous four games combined.
“We had a great game last night and we’re going into a loud building in Columbus with a chance to close out the series,” Penguins forward James Neal said. “It’s going to be the toughest game – it always is – the fourth (win).”
As for the Blue Jackets, what else is new? They’ll be desperate.
They have faced playoff-like games for more than a month, battling just to make the postseason when the odds were against them, and now battling just to stay alive.
“When your backs are against the wall it’s the ultimate do or die,” defenseman James Wisniewski said. “We’ve probably used that term a lot during the season, but it really applies now. It’s either that or go home (for the offseason).”
In taking Game 5, the Penguins locked down Columbus’ attack and denied the Blue Jackets any kind of flow with the puck. On top of that, for the first time in the series they were on relatively even terms in hits (a 37-34 Columbus advantage) and won 25 of 35 faceoffs in the final two periods.
“They were trying to establish their forecheck, but on our end, our forecheck was much better,” said Pittsburgh defenseman Matt Niskanen. “They didn’t have energy in the offensive zone or on the forecheck because of what we were doing.”
Yes, the Penguins would love to take the loud and raucous crowd out of play early. Yes, they’d also love to get home and enjoy some R&R instead of playing in a pressure-packed Game 7 two days later in Pittsburgh against a team that has been a handful for them.
They also know it won’t be easy to get rid of the Blue Jackets.
“We fully expect a huge response from their team,” coach Dan Bylsma said. “They are going to give us their best. We have to match and exceed that.”
Sergei Bobrovsky kept the Blue Jackets in Game 5 by stopping 48 of 50 shots. Meanwhile, his counterpart in gold and black, Marc-Andre Fleury, faced only 24 shots.
The Blue Jackets are angry the Penguins repeatedly made contact with or crowded last year’s Vezina Trophy winner. That’s something they vowed will not happen again.
“We definitely need to be more physical and make them pay the price,” said center Brandon Dubinsky. “They got away with a couple on Sergei.”
Columbus, which has trailed 1-0 and 2-1 in the series, must adapt if it wants to survive.
“We’ve dealt with adversity all year,” coach Todd Richards said. “We’ve had games where maybe we haven’t played our best, or maybe the other team has just outplayed us, and we’ve responded the next game. I’m looking at this as a rebound game.”
The Blue Jackets have already collected the first playoff win in franchise history (Game 2) and the first home playoff win in the team’s 13 seasons. Even though they face elimination, they say the pressure’s still on the Penguins.
“It’s always been on Pittsburgh,” defenseman Jack Johnson said. “They’re the ones the so-called experts said were supposed to win the series. I guarantee they don’t want to go back there for a Game 7.”
Meanwhile, the Penguins just try to keep doing what they did Saturday night.
“We played our best game of the series and this is the way we need to play Monday, too,” said forward Jussi Jokinen.