Despite their 4-2 victory Friday night at Consol Energy Center, the Pittsburgh Penguins didn’t play very well in the opener of their home-and-home with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
The Jackets outshot Pittsburgh 39-27 for the game, including 16-9 during the first period, which the Penguins somehow escaped with a 1-0 lead. The numerical advantage doesn’t even tell the whole story, as too many Columbus chances were grade ‘A’ scoring opportunities, especially early on.
Fortunately for the Pens, goalie Marc-Andre Fleury turned in one of the best performances of his career to make up for his teammates’ lack of care in their own zone. In a young season that’s seen Pittsburgh play more conservatively than it ever has under coach Dan Bylsma, Fleury made up for the Penguins’ rare defensive off game.
To their credit, the Pens acknowledged their lack of support for Fleury immediately following Friday’s win. The coaching staff couldn’t have been too pleased with allowing 61 Columbus shot attempts, including 22 drives that missed net or were blocked.
Bylsma has been criticized for not being able – or willing – to make adjustments, especially in situations where the Penguins face the same team repeatedly, like the playoffs. An early-November back-to-back isn’t the Eastern Conference final, but Pittsburgh’s defending was much sounder in its second crack at its new Metropolitan Division rival.
The Penguins’ 3-0 victory over the Jackets on Saturday night at Nationwide Arena was notable for how much the visitors tightened up, allowing Columbus just 40 shot attempts, 19 of which were on target. Goalie Jeff Zatkoff earned his first NHL win and shutout, but with all respect to the rookie, he may not have broken a sweat all night.
Saturday’s victory wasn’t the most artful display ever perpetuated; however, Pittsburgh’s dedication to limiting Columbus’ opportunities was noticeable and quite effective. Not only did the Penguins give the Jackets next to nothing on the counterattack, they also greatly reduced their opponents’ time in the offensive zone, something Bylsma specifically praised in his post-game media availability.
A team isn’t going to be at its best every game during a six-month regular season. Nevertheless, it can take pains to make sure lapses in focus don’t last long. Judging from how the Penguins rebounded from a so-so effort over the weekend, their seven-point lead over the rest of the division appears rather commanding.
More importantly, Pittsburgh’s defensive diligence portends well for more important games down the road.