There were many questions surrounding the Penguins heading into Game 5 of their opening round Stanley Cup playoff series against the Columbus Blue Jackets Saturday night at CONSOL Energy Center.
With a 3-1 victory that has given Pittsburgh a 3-2 series lead, the Penguins supplied the answers.
Question: Would the Penguins respond with a strong effort after being called out publicly by their head coach?
On Thursday following Game 4, Dan Bylsma said, “The work, compete and battle level has been the most troubling thing from our team (this series). That’s got to be raised up to a level that is necessary at this time of year, this type of hockey, playoff hockey.”
The Penguins agreed with their head coach and called upon each other inside the locker room to step up their effort and battle level for Game 5.
Answer: After an evenly-played first period, the Penguins took over in the final 40 minutes and dominated the game.
The Penguins won puck battles, played physical, created offensive zone time, crashed the net and got shots, shots, shots, everybody.
The Penguins finished the game with 51 total shots, only the third time in team history that they recorded over 50 shots in a playoff game that didn’t go into overtime. The Penguins outshot Columbus 21-8 in the second period and 15-7 in the final frame.
The Penguins brought back a physical level to their game – matching the much-discussed toughness of the Blue Jackets. Though the final hit totals still favored Columbus, 37-34, Pittsburgh’s added physicality helped set the tone and pushed its own intensity to a new height.
Question: Would superstar centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin finally have a breakthrough game?
Both Crosby and Malkin had been held without a goal this series, and for the past two playoff series dating back to last season.
Answer: Though they did not have a breakout game as far as goal and point production, there is no doubt Crosby and Malkin were factors in the Penguins’ victory.
Bylsma switched up his lines and united Crosby and Malkin with left winger Chris Kunitz for most of the game, in an attempt to energize both players and to get them away from Blue Jackets checking center Brandon Dubinsky.
Crosby set up the Penguins’ first goal on the power play when he snapped off a shot toward the goal and Kunitz finished off on the rebound. Crosby ended the game with six shots, but his play in the third period, particularly his defensive efforts, helped the Penguins hold get a lead and hold on for the win. Crosby came inches away from breaking his goal-less drought when his shot attempt at the empty-net in the final seconds went off the post.
Malkin had a sluggish start with three turnovers on his opening shifts. But he too saved his best hockey for the final period. He was creating chances and opportunities.
Question: How would goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury responded after a devastating ending to Game 4?
Fleury struggled in the playoffs over the past two postseasons – being benched during last season’s playoff run after four games – and many in the media were waiting for him to crack under the pressure.
Game 4 in Columbus ended with the 29-year-old netminder allowing the game-tying goal with 22.5 seconds left in the third period and game-winning overtime goal in a 4-3 loss – both goals being of the unfortunate variety.
Answer: With a solid, bounce-back performance. Fleury was a rock between the pipes for the Penguins’ victory.
Fleury experienced no hangover from Game 4. He turned aside 23 shots from the Blue Jackets, including several difficult saves. His best save came late in the game on a Dubinsky re-direction with 1:49 left in regulation and the Penguins clinging to a 2-1 lead.
Even the fans showed their appreciation to the resilient goaltender by chanting his name before opening puck drop and again after the final horn sounded.
The Penguins entered Game 5 facing more pressure and questions than they have in recent history. They answered all of those questions with their play on the ice.
In 48 hours the Penguins have a chance to eliminate the Blue Jackets in Game 6 in Columbus Monday night. Pittsburgh has answered its critics for now, but the ultimate answers will come when/if they can close out the series.