The 2016-17 season ended for the Blue Jackets Thursday night in Pittsburgh as they fell to the Penguins 5-2. The Eastern Conference quarterfinals ended with a tally of 4-1 in favor of the defending Stanley Cup champs.
Playing without captain Nick Foligno who suffered a lower body injury, the Jackets got out to a fast start for the fifth straight game. But it was the Penguins who started the scoring when a Sam Gagner holding penalty gave the home team a power play chance. Phil Kessel wired a shot past Sergei Bobrovsky from atop the left circle to give Pittsburgh a 1-0 lead that they would take into the first intermission.
The Penguins were aggressive in the middle frame and built a 3-0 lead off two Bryan Rust scores, but the Jackets fought to regain control of the momentum and they succeeded. Halfway through the second period, the Jackets potted their first goal of the night.
Sam Gagner corralled the puck along the half-boards and passed to William Karlsson who carried the puck to the front of the net and his backhand shot got past Marc-Andre Fleury. It was Karlsson's second goal and third point (2-1-3) in the last two games.
Just under two minutes later, Oliver Bjorkstrand drew a holding call from Trevor Daley. 1:01 into the resulting power play, the puck flew to Seth Jones in the slot. His shot generated a high rebound that Boone Jenner swatted out of the air to narrow the Penguins' lead to 3-2.
The Jackets thought they tied it up in 3:52 into the third when Bjorkstrand fired the puck over a sprawling Fleury. But the reason the goaltender was down, a knock from Alexander Wennberg, negated the goal and delivered a penalty to the Jackets instead.
This time it was the Penguins who grabbed ahold of opportunity. They scored on the resulting power play and again 51 seconds later to establish a 5-2 lead that would stand for the remainder of the game.
The Jackets took 51 shots on goal, with Fleury stopping 49. Sergei Bobrovsky turned away 27 of the 32 shots he faced.
"It hurts," Brandon Dubinsky said. "We talked about fighting all summer and fighting through a tough training camp and a tough season. The season we put in, these playoffs don't reflect it. These are the times when you have to step up and find a way to get the job done. We weren't good enough. That's the way it goes and it hurts right now."
Video: Brandon Dubinsky following first round loss to Pens
Here's what we learned.
The turning point.
In three-and-a-half minutes in the third period, the Jackets went from thinking they had the game-tying goal to cap a valiant comeback effort, to taking a goaltender inference call, to ultimately being down by three goals.
There was no complaining about the call after the game, but there was a definite understanding that was the moment the Penguins dug in and grabbed the game by the throat.
"If (the goal) was allowed we would have had a good chance to win the game," Bjorkstrand said. "The momentum changed when they got the power play and ended up scoring. Once that call happens, you can't do anything about it. You have to move on from it."
Video: R1, Gm5: Blue Jackets @ Penguins
In the five games played, the Penguins converted five of their 15 power play opportunities (second best in the post-season) while the Jackets scored on only two of their 12 chances with the man advantage.
Going into this series, both head coaches talked about the importance of special teams, and in his post-game comments, John Tortorella tipped his cap to the Penguins' ability to convert, as did Brandon Dubinsky.
"Our special teams were the difference a little bit," Dubinsky said. "We have to a better job on the kill and score on the power play too."
We didn't. They did.
The Jackets came into this series with respect for their opponent. They knew they were facing a Pittsburgh team loaded with offensive weapons. While the Jackets out-shot the Penguins in four of five games, they didn't find the way to crack through and turn those shot attempts into more goals.
Video: Torts on his team's play in the series
"Give them credit, that's a good hockey club," Tortorella said. "It's a well-coached team, their top players hurt us. They capitalized. It doesn't take much for them to get a couple of chances. That was the big difference. We had a number of opportunities, we didn't (score). They did. They put the puck in the net."
But don't think the head coach was all doom and gloom.
"I like our group," Tortorella said. "Do we have some things to work on and get better at? You're damn right we do. But I like our group. We have to lick our wounds and learn from some of the things that went on in this series. But I can't wait to get going again with them (next year), quite honestly."