As it turned out, the start wasn’t the issue for the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Despite playing in the franchise’s first Stanley Cup playoff game since 2009, Columbus seemed to be the more settled team in the early going of Wednesday’s Game 1 of an Eastern Conference first-round series. However, the Pittsburgh Penguins leveraged their potent power play to erase a deficit and eventually prevail 4-3 at Consol Energy Center.
Brandon Sutter drilled the game-winning goal with 11:42 to play in the third period, snapping a 3-3 tie with a wrist shot that beat Blue Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky under his right arm. Paul Martin, who had two assists, started the rush by breaking up a pass at his own blue line, allowing Beau Bennett to pick up the loose puck in the neutral zone.
Pittsburgh’s strongest period was the third, but a pair of power-play goals early in the second turned the game around. The Penguins had the top-ranked man-advantage unit during the regular season, and it connected twice in 45 seconds soon after Derek MacKenzie boosted Columbus to a 3-1 advantage with a shorthanded goal.
Bennett deflected Matt Niskanen‘s point shot past Bobrovsky at 1:34 of the second with Blake Comeau in the penalty box, then Niskanen scored from the left circle by whipping a quick wrister under the Jackets goalie just 10 seconds after Jack Johnson was whistled for interference.
Evgeni Malkin, back after missing 11 games with a broken foot, and Sidney Crosby earned assists on Niskanen’s goal. Crosby nearly had a second helper later in the frame, but Chris Kunitz fired wide on a 2-on-1 rush.
Columbus had its own golden opportunity later when Matt Calvert took advantage of a Penguins turnover and burst in on a breakaway. Marc-Andre Fleury made the finest of his 34 saves with a patented poke check.
Pittsburgh tilted the ice in the third, generating good offensive-zone time for long stretches. Even after Sutter’s go-ahead goal, the Pens prevented the desperate Jackets from creating too much.
When Columbus did break through, Jack Skille hit the outside of the post with a right-wing shot, and Fleury denied Ryan Murray with about a minute to go. Fleury edged 2013 Vezina Trophy winner Bobrovsky in the goaltending battle, which projected to be a Jackets advantage entering the series.
In the final seconds, Crosby dived to knock the puck out of the Penguins’ zone, beating old prep-school teammate Johnson to the spot. However, Johnson got the early edge in their personal rivalry, taking a terrific pass from Brandon Dubinsky and stashing a backhand shot behind Fleury 6:20 into the game.
Malkin made his presence felt at 17:13, dishing the puck to Jussi Jokinen in the slot for a clinical finish and a 1-1 tie. The Jackets jumped back on top before the intermission when former Penguin Mark Letestu deposited a rebound of Johnson’s shot for a power-play tally.
Columbus’ crash-and-bang style seemed to flummox Pittsburgh in the opening two periods, but the home side started using short passes to maintain possession and alleviate pressure as the night went on.
Pittsburgh will try to take a 2-0 series lead on home ice for the first time since 2009 when they host Columbus in Game 2 on Saturday night.