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Round 1

Penguins blame themselves for defensive struggles

Must tighten up in front of goalie Marc-Andre Fleury against Blue Jackets in Game 5 on Thursday

by Wes Crosby / NHL.com Correspondent

CRANBERRY, Pa. -- The Pittsburgh Penguins felt they let goalie Marc-Andre Fleury down the past two games.

The Penguins lead the Columbus Blue Jackets 3-1 in their best-of-7 Eastern Conference First Round series entering Game 5 at PPG Paints Arena on Thursday (7 p.m. ET; NHLN, SN, TVA Sports 2, ROOT, FS-O). However, after a short practice Wednesday, the Penguins expressed frustration with their lackluster performance in front of Fleury.

"Not good enough," center Sidney Crosby said. "I think he's been good. We've got to find a way to limit their chances a little more. The odd-man rushes and things like that. So we can definitely improve in that area."

 

[RELATED: Complete Penguins-Blue Jackets series coverage]

 

Those odd-man rushes, along with sloppy play around the crease, have somewhat diminished Fleury's strong numbers from the start of the series. After making a surprise start when Matt Murray went down with a lower-body injury in warmups before Game 1, Fleury stopped 70 of 72 shots in the first two games. In the next two, he allowed nine goals on 71 shots.

Video: PIT@CBJ, Gm4: Karlsson nets his first playoff goal

Poor first-period efforts by his teammates have made life difficult for Fleury throughout the series. That was particularly true in Game 4, a 5-4 loss in which the Penguins fell behind 3-0 before pulling to within one goal three times but coming up short.

Fleury allowed two third-period goals that put the game out of reach. Defenseman Olli Maatta said Fleury didn't deserve any of the blame.

"We let him out there to dry. That wasn't our best game," Maatta said. "We know we have to be better."

After a short practice Wednesday, defenseman Brian Dumoulin described Fleury's presence as calming, on and off the ice. When Fleury entered the room, he sat at his locker stall donning his customary grin and did his best to live up to that billing.

"Just keep playing. Forget about it," Fleury said his performance in Game 4. "We had a good skate today. We let up some unfortunate goals in the last game, off our guys, off our opponents. We'll be all right."

The Penguins have been built with speed and offense in mind; that formula helped them win the Stanley Cup in 2016. However, in Games 3 and 4 against Columbus, their reliance on a high-tempo game has hindered the defense and made Fleury scramble out of position.

Video: PIT@CBJ, Gm4: Anderson slips home first playoff goal

"We have to be vigilant that we make good decisions with the puck," coach Mike Sullivan said. "I think the way our team is wired, when you look at our core players, they have offensive instincts and they tend to think offense and playmaking first, which is what makes them as good as they are. But sometimes in a game the plays aren't there to be made.

"We have to make simple plays so that we don't leave ourselves vulnerable to the counterattack. … We don't want to take the stick out of their hand because that's what we think separates them from others, but we have to be more vigilant."

Without a definitive timetable for Murray's return, the Penguins will lean on Fleury for the foreseeable future. Murray has yet to return to practice, which makes it likely Fleury will start Game 5 with Tristan Jarry again serving as his backup.

Pittsburgh is comfortable with Fleury, who is tied with Tom Barrasso for the most playoff wins with the Penguins (56). More importantly, Fleury is comfortable with his current role.

"I really enjoy it," Fleury said. "I feel a little more at ease, a little more comfortable when you play a few games in a row. I'm enjoying this moment right now."

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