It wasn't easy and it was rarely pretty, but the Pittsburgh Penguins found a way to subdue the Columbus Blue Jackets in the Eastern Conference First Round.
In a series eerily similar to the first-round last season against the New York Islanders, the Penguins played some run-and-gun hockey with the seventh-seeded Blue Jackets before holding on to a 4-3 victory in Game 6 to win the series, 4-2.
In the games Pittsburgh lost, Game 2 and Game 4, the Penguins allowed the Blue Jackets to erase deficits of two and three goals, respectively. In all, the Penguins allowed 18 goals in the six games, a defensive showing that must be improved as they advance to even stiffer competition.
Yet, despite the tight nature of the games (Pittsburgh finished with three more goals than Columbus), the Penguins did advance and will play the winner of the series between the New York Rangers and the Philadelphia Flyers, which the Rangers lead 3-2.
Here are five reasons the Penguins are moving on to the second round for the fifth time in the past eight years:
1. Flower in bloom
Forget the narrative about Marc-Andre Fleury being the weak link for the Penguins, a goalie no longer able to win the big game. Yes, Fleury had another epic meltdown in Game 4, making a bad play in the waning seconds of regulation to allow Columbus to tie the game and then allowing the winning goal from long distance in overtime. But, he followed that with his best playoff performance in recent memory in Game 5, a showing the Penguins needed to have. In Game 6, he allowed a barrage of third-period goals to make a 4-0 lead an interesting proposition, but he had little chance on any of those three goals. His .908 save percentage after 196 shots from the Jackets was good enough to win the series.
2. Defense didn't rest
The blue-line duo of Paul Martin and Matt Niskanen out-pointed the forward duo of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Martin and Niskanen each managed eight points in the series, while Malkin and Crosby combined for 13 points. Martin was the best player in the series and he managed two assists in each of the first four games to set the tone. Niskanen, who had 46 points in the regular season, managed two goals and six assists. The defensive duo was especially dangerous on the power play. Niskanen scored each of his goals with the man advantage and had four power-play assists. Martin added three power-play assists.
3. Firing range
The Penguins knew it would take some work to beat goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, who has built himself quite the resume since arriving in Columbus. So, they kept on shooting the puck, believing volume would lead to goals. They were right; the Penguins scored 21 goals on 219 shots. The average of 36.5 shots per game led all teams in the postseason. The Penguins had three forwards – Evgeni Malkin, Chris Kunitz and James Neal – with 20 or more shots and 11 skaters with at least 10 shots.
4. Center depth
The Penguins were deep down the middle and, as a result, presented some matchup problems for the Blue Jackets. Everybody knows about the threat presented by Malkin and Crosby, but Pittsburgh has a good third-line option in Brandon Sutter, who tied for the team lead with three goals and won 50 percent of his faceoffs before getting injured late in the second period of Game 6. Fourth-line center Joe Vitale, meanwhile, was a hitting machine before being hurt on a check in the third period Monday.
5. Cool rules
There were countless junctures in this series where the team, as a whole, or important individual players could have lost the plot. But, it rarely happened. The sometimes-volatile Penguins kept their composure. Marc-Andre Fleury handled the disappointment of his Game 4 flubs without losing the fundamental foundation of his game. Columbus center Brandon Dubinsky hounded Crosby all over the ice, frustrating the Penguins captain at every turn, but Crosby never let his frustrations show. Top defenseman Brooks Orpik missed the last two games of the series, but Pittsburgh allowed one goal in the first five periods of that absence. Evgeni Malkin was held without a goal for five games, yet responded with a three-goal performance in Game 6.