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Pens punch back with skill against Jackets

by Sam Kasan @PensInsideScoop / Pittsburgh Penguins

The Columbus Blue Jackets didn't hide their strategy heading into their First Round matchup against the Pens. 

"We want to make it a hard 60 minutes. Every time they go back for a puck we're going to get a lick on them," forward Scott Hartnell said.

It is a solid strategy considering it plays to their team strengths. However, the Pens have responded with their own brand of physicality, grit, and toughness. And the Blue Jackets are no match for the Pens' talent level.

That isn't a criticism of Columbus. After all, the Pens have the two best players in the game at center, a top-5 NHL sniper and a Stanley Cup-winning netminder. Few teams, if any, in the NHL can make that claim.

And the Pens' edge in talent is a big reason they hold a 2-0 series lead following a 4-1 victory on Friday night at PPG Paints Arena.

Pittsburgh's best players have been the best players through the first two games. Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby each have three points already this postseason. Meanwhile, Jake Guentzel, Phil Kessel, Nick Bonino, Bryan Rust and Patric Hornqvist have chipped in goals.

On the backend Marc-Andre Fleury has stopped 70 of 72 shots against, and has looked fantastic in his play reads and agility.

The Blue Jackets hoped to use physical dominance against the Pens' skill. Even head coach John Tortorella noted that they must maintain their identity.

But as the saying goes, talent will always beat hard work if talent works hard.

The Pens haven't shied away from the battle aspects of the game. Any time the Blue Jackets punched them, they punched back. Figuratively and literally.

You want physicality? Pittsburgh totaled 65 hits in the two games combined. Leading the path are Tom Kuhnhackl and Carter Rowney with 11 hits each.

You want grit? The Pens have sacrificed their bodies, blocking 45 combined shots in both games. Brian Dumoulin has led the way with six, but both Olli Maatta and Ian Cole have five apiece.

You want toughness? Look no further than Pittsburgh dishing out punishment to every Blue Jacket player that came near Fleury, the biggest eruption coming at the end of the second period when Cole gave it to Brandon Dubinsky.

The Blue Jackets hoped to frustrate the Pens into errors and mistakes. But it was Columbus that lost its cool as the game wore on, culminating with Matt Calvert's cross checks on a defenseless Kuhnhackl with 35 seconds left and a couple of misconduct penalties to Boone Jenner and Scott Harrington.

But despite the Jackets' best efforts, the Pens just brushed them aside and kept stuck to their game. In the end, the Pens' strategy was the winning strategy.

"We're going to play between the whistles and create scoring chances and prevent scoring chances," Cole said. "We want to be competitive. We want to be physical. We want to play hard. But we're going to do it between the whistles and stay out of the stuff after the whistles because the game isn't won after the whistles."

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