The Pittsburgh Penguins eliminated the Columbus Blue Jackets in Game 6 of their divisional semifinal, 4-3.
But it wasn’t a victory. It was survival.
After building a 4-0 lead in the game, in a series where no lead was safe, the Penguins surrendered three third-period goals in 4:52.
The Jackets continued pressing, pulling Sergei Bobrovsky with nearly two minutes remaining. The deafening crowd chanted “CBJ” until their throats were raw. But the exhausted Jackets forwards couldn’t complete the comeback.
The game ended. The crowd fell silent for a moment in disappointment before roaring in appreciation for a Columbus team that gave the Penguins a hell of a series.
But Columbus broke through against Marc-Andre Fleury at 10:21 of the third on a shorthanded goal. Artem Anisimov scored 3:33 later on the power play to cut the lead to 4-2. Then it was Nick Foligno, tipping a puck through the pads of Fleury on a Tyutin pass, to make it 4-3.
“We sat back and they fed off some momentum,” said Sidney Crosby on NBCSN. “They got a big push and we gotta find a way to hold them off a little better.”
For the Penguins, they watched their maligned goalie bend but not break in the third period.
“He was out best player, all series,” said Crosby of Fleury (24 saves), to whom he gave the game puck.
Honestly, that might have been by default. Malkin didn’t get going until Game 6. Crosby finished the series with six assists but no goals. Kris Letang was a liability all series.
What we learned about Fleury: That he can be dependable when not asked to do much, and that the Penguins are only going to win with him if they collapse and clog the defensive zone as they did in the first 40 minutes of the game. The Penguins - who were hurt by injuries to Sutter and Joe Vitale in the game – gave the Jackets far too much room to operate in the third, and Fleury yielded three goals.
But again, to Fleury’s credit, he didn’t crack like in the past: Look no further than a clutch save on Matt Calvert on a blown defensive play by Letang with six minutes remaining. Perfect position, no rebound, like his best moments in the series.
If you has said Fleury would outplay Bobrovsky, many would have said this series was done in four. So it’s a tribute to the Jackets that they pushed the Penguins to six games without any thievery from Bob.
To that end, it's a loss for the Jackets, but a win for the franchise. The young players that went through the playoff race that resulted in their second postseason berth in team history will be better for it. Ditto taking two games against the Penguins. It’s not easy to learn how to win in this league; this was an essential, but harsh, lesson.
What it means for the Columbus market is immeasurable. The fans were transformed into “The 5th Line”, giving the Jackets a distinct home ice advantage.
They’ll be back next season, and there will be more of them. It’s the most important moment in the history of the franchise; that it’s in the hands of John Davidson and Jarmo Kekalainen makes us thing it won’t be a moment squandered.