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Blue Jackets must regroup following Game 3 loss

Columbus desperate, on brink of elimination after failing to protect lead in defeat against Penguins

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

COLUMBUS -- This was brutal for the Columbus Blue Jackets, from the cut snaking under Zach Werenski's black eye, to the blown lead in the second period, to Brandon Dubinsky's shot off Marc-Andre Fleury's mask in overtime, to the final score.

The Blue Jackets started strong, gave a gutsy effort and had a chance to win a home game in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2014 and the second time ever. But they lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins 5-4 at Nationwide Arena on Sunday when Jake Guentzel completed a hat trick 13:10 into overtime, and now, suddenly, the best season in franchise history is on the brink.

Columbus trails 3-0 in this best-of-7 Eastern Conference First Round series. Game 4 is here on Tuesday (7:30 p.m. ET; CNBC, SN360, TVA Sports 2, FS-O, ROOT).

"It hurts," Dubinsky said. "There's no doubt about it. We needed this one."


[RELATED: Complete Blue Jackets vs. Penguins series coverage]


It couldn't be more frustrating for the Blue Jackets. They set franchise records for wins (50) and points (108), and finished fourth in the NHL standings. But they were third in their own division because the Metropolitan was so stacked, and they drew the defending Stanley Cup champions in the first round.

After losing Games 1 and 2 in Pittsburgh by a combined score of 7-2, they were determined to show they were for real and make this a series on home ice. They were 28-12-1 at Nationwide Arena in the regular season. Before the opening faceoff, forward Cam Atkinson told NBCSN analyst Brian Boucher they had to use their crowd to their advantage, relish the moment, have fun and go for it.

"We're going to get a win today," Atkinson said.

Moments later, he seemed like Mark Messier. He forced a turnover, went to the net and banged in a rebound, giving the Blue Jackets a 1-0 lead 11 seconds into the first period. After Pittsburgh responded, he forced another turnover and avoided a diving poke check by Fleury to make it 2-1 at 5:02.

"I feel like I didn't do much in the first two games," said Atkinson, who led Columbus with 62 points in the regular season but had none in Pittsburgh. "I kind of let the team down. I needed to be way better. I had good energy in the first period, got on the board. I thought we were rolling."

Werenski made it 3-1 on the power play. After scoring two goals in two games, the Blue Jackets had three in 6:10. Everyone thought they were rolling.

But the Penguins dominated the second. Bryan Rust made it 3-2 at 5:21. Werenski took a puck in the face when a Phil Kessel shot deflected off his outstretched stick blade and flew up under his visor. He fell to the ice in the slot, but the Blue Jackets didn't have possession and the play continued for 10 seconds. As Werenski skated off with a trail of blood behind him, Evgeni Malkin made it 3-3 at 13:25.

Werenski returned in the third with a full shield to cheers. Coach John Tortorella said, to paraphrase, he had guts as big as the building.

"He's a warrior," Blue Jackets captain Nick Foligno said. "I talk about leadership, and you've got a 19-year-old kid showing a ton of leadership right there, of what we are and what we expect in this room. I can't say enough good things about him."

After Guentzel gave the Penguins a 4-3 lead at 11:48 with Dubinsky in the box for cross-checking him, Dubinsky tied the game at 4-4 at 15:11.

But Werenski couldn't return for overtime because he was unable to see out of his right eye, and Dubinsky couldn't bury a chance about seven minutes into overtime. When a rebound popped out to him, he fired as Fleury scrambled over to his left. The puck hit the top of Fleury's mask and went out of play.

"A couple inches left, right or higher, I guess, it goes in the net," Dubinsky said. "But it didn't."

Brutal. Penguins captain Sidney Crosby won a battle down low and sent a slick backhand pass in front, as he does. Guentzel. Game.

The Blue Jackets are good. Really good. But they aren't good enough to give the Penguins easy goals, like they did in Games 1 and 2, when goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky struggled, and to let opportunities slip away, like they did in Game 3. Consider that Atkinson scored twice, Werenski scored, they had a 3-1 lead, Dubinsky had the game on his stick, and they still lost.

Foligno refused to buy into the notion the Penguins had taken the Blue Jackets' best shot.

"No, because now we're desperate," Foligno said. "I know that sounds funny, but I can't think like that."

But it's as desperate as it gets.

"Unfortunately we didn't get it done, and now we're in a situation where it's do or die," Dubinsky said. "We can pout and hang our heads, or we can come to work tomorrow and get ready for another game."

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