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Speed prevailing factor for Penguins

Blue Jackets must slow down defending champs to avoid sweep, extend series in Game 4 Tuesday

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist

COLUMBUS -- The Pittsburgh Penguins present the same problem for opponents they did last year, when they won the Stanley Cup.

They have so much speed, skill, commitment and cohesiveness, they can make 5-on-5 playoff hockey look like 3-on-3 overtime in the regular season. When their goaltender makes a save, or they force a turnover in the defensive or neutral zone, whoosh, they're gone. They're flying down the ice on an odd-man rush.

It has been evident in the Eastern Conference First Round. Pittsburgh has a 3-0 lead in the best-of-7 series with the Columbus Blue Jackets entering Game 4 at Nationwide Arena on Tuesday (7:30 p.m. ET; CNBC, SN360, TVA Sports 2, FS-O, ROOT).

"It's a strategy that's not unique to us, but it's a strategy that we've gotten good at over the course of the last year-plus," Penguins defenseman Ian Cole said.

 

[RELATED: Complete Penguins-Blue Jackets series coverage]

 

When the Penguins named Mike Sullivan their coach on Dec. 12, 2015, he set out to accentuate the strengths of a team with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel. They brought up speedy forwards like Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary, who had played under Sullivan with Wilkes-Barre Scranton of the American Hockey League. They ended up outskating the competition to a championship.

Nothing has changed this season. Opponents know what's coming better than ever before. But it's still hard to stop.

The Penguins play as a five-man unit. The forwards come back defensively and stay close to the defensemen. That helps force turnovers and provide outlets for transition. As soon as the Penguins gain possession, they push the puck up the ice with a quick pass or a chip to space for a footrace.

Patience might be a virtue, but not in Pittsburgh.

"Sometimes it's easy as a defenseman -- I know I'm guilty of doing it sometimes -- to pull the puck back, wait, try to slow it down a little bit, just because you have time," Cole said. "You have to continue to try to force yourself to push the pace. Even when it might be a tight window, you still try to put it in there because you know that something beneficial could come on the other end."

The Blue Jackets like to push the pace, too. Coach John Tortorella's motto this season is "safe is death," same as it was when he led the Tampa Bay Lightning to the Stanley Cup in 2004.

They want to go north-south as fast as possible. They want their defensemen to join the rush. They want to forecheck hard and pinch their defensemen to sustain pressure in the offensive end.

But that's dangerous against a team like Pittsburgh. The Blue Jackets have to play their game, but they have to make good decisions or they'll get burned.

Video: The guys preview the Penguins vs Blue Jackets

"Just pick your spots," Blue Jackets defenseman Seth Jones said. "If I don't like it, I'm getting out of there quick because they're coming. There are many plays in a game where I want to pinch, and I look over and they're coming and I have to back out. That's just a read I have to make. I've been pretty good with that this year. I have to be extra careful in these situations, especially with the firepower they have."

Too often the Blue Jackets have sent three men deep on the forecheck, and without a third man high, the Penguins have been able to pounce on a rebound, a turnover or a loose puck and take off on an odd-man rush. Pittsburgh felt Columbus actually backed off in Game 3, and still it happened.

"Initially, when you're trying to get around the puck and support the puck and try to get possession of the puck, I think that's when you end up with three guys maybe below the goal line, trying to rotate or trying to get possession," Tortorella said. "But eventually I think you've got to make a read as far as, 'Where is the depth? Where is that third guy going to be?' And trust your guys. You don't want to be too far away from the puck, because you still need support.

"There's no set plays you can run on it. It has to be a read by the offensive guys. I think good offensive people, there's good anticipation, and there's cheating. I think there's a fine line of anticipating and cheating, and that's what you've got to walk as far as trying to score goals, but also knowing the team is tramping up the ice going the other way."

Can the Blue Jackets solve it in Game 4? If they can't, can anyone else?

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