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Plenty of work remains, but Blue Jackets get important win

Players, fans celebrate second playoff victory at home, first in regulation

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

COLUMBUS -- Jake Guentzel scored shorthanded for the Pittsburgh Penguins, and the lead was down to one again for the Columbus Blue Jackets with 27.5 seconds left in the third period Tuesday. The fans gasped at Nationwide Arena.

For a moment.

Already on their feet, the fans chanted, "C-B-J! C-B-J!" They cheered as the seconds ticked off the clock, then roared as the Blue Jackets cleared their zone and the horn sounded. The cannon blasted. Red and blue streamers fell from the rafters. Fans walked out high-fiving ushers.

It might seem like nothing. By winning 5-4, all the Blue Jackets did was avoid elimination in the Eastern Conference First Round, cutting the Penguins lead in the best-of-7 series to 3-1, earning a chance to play Game 5 at PPG Paints Arena on Thursday (7 p.m. ET; NHLN, SN, TVA Sports 2, ROOT, FS-O).

 

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

 

But this was the third time the Blue Jackets had won in the Stanley Cup Playoffs in their 16 seasons, the second time they had won at home, the first time they had won in regulation.

In the locker room, trainer Kevin Collins could put on that electronic dance music by Avicii that forward Cam Atkinson had picked as their win song.

Coach John Tortorella hates that stuff. He uses a stronger word to describe it, like a grumpy old man complaining about that noise and these kids today. But he told the players in the morning to forget they trailed 3-0. All he wanted was for them to play well so they could hit the play button.

"I want them to be able to put that on and just jam with it so they can feel good about themselves," Tortorella said after the morning skate. "Then we'll decide how we approach the rest of the series."

In their first playoff appearance, the Blue Jackets were swept by the Detroit Red Wings in 2009. In their second, they won two overtime games, one at home, but lost the series in six games to the Penguins in 2013. Each time, they were eliminated at home.

This market has had the ingredients -- from rabid sports fans to a first-class facility -- but hasn't had much of a reason to celebrate its NHL team.

Then came this season. The Blue Jackets went on a 16-game winning streak, one short of the NHL record. They set franchise records for wins (50) and points (108), and finished fourth in the League standings.

To get swept, to get eliminated at home again, would have been a bitter letdown. It would have been little consolation that the Blue Jackets played in the stacked Metropolitan Division and drew the Penguins, who won the Stanley Cup last year and finished second in the League standings this season.

Video: PIT@CBJ, Gm4: Tortorella on the Jackets' Game 4 win

The Blue Jackets felt they didn't play as badly as it looked in Games 1 and 2, when they were outscored by a combined 7-2 in Pittsburgh. They felt they played worse in Game 3 but had their best chance to win, one shot from a victory, losing in overtime 5-4.

Without rookie defenseman Zach Werenski, who sustained a facial fracture in Game 3, they dominated much of Game 4, breaking out better, turning over fewer pucks, forechecking better, sustaining possession. They took a 3-0 lead in the second period.

Yes, they wobbled after the Penguins cut it to 3-2 later in the second.

"We got small a little bit," Tortorella said. "You could just see we were kind of in a little bit of a panic. We started turning pucks over, and that's a good team, they can sense the blood in the water."

But goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, who excelled in the regular season but has struggled in this series, came through at the end of the second, and center William Karlsson scored 27 seconds into the third to make it 4-2. Penguins forward Tom Kuhnhackl scored at 2:10, but Boone Jenner responded at 5:37 to make it 5-3.

"Every time they scored, we would counter," Atkinson said.

The Blue Jackets have allowed at least three goals in all 14 playoff games in their history. They have to win three in a row against the defending champs. Though they won 16 straight in the regular season, they weren't playing the Penguins game after game in the playoffs. Four teams have come back from down 3-0 in a series in NHL history. Four. That's it.

But bare minimum, no matter what happens next, the fans got to feel what it was like to win in the playoffs again. The players got to feel what it was like to win in the playoffs, some for the first time, and got to jam in the locker room.

Except for Atkinson, who was doing an interview with NBC Sports' Pierre McGuire on the bench. They'll have to win Game 5 so he can jam too.

"Exactly," Atkinson said. "We have nothing to lose. We're still down. We're still crawling back into this. But it's huge for us to get the momentum. Obviously a win is huge."

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