In a first-round Stanley Cup playoff series that has been difficult to decipher, the Pittsburgh Penguins have a 2-1 lead over the Columbus Blue Jackets through three games.
The only problem? Getting out in front might not be the best plan.
Nonetheless, after a three-goal third-period rally in Monday night’s Game 3 at Nationwide Arena, the Pens have taken control of the series for the second time. Brandon Sutter, Lee Stempniak and Jussi Jokinen scored within a span of 2:13 to transform a 3-1 deficit into a 4-3 lead with 11:54 to play.
The Penguins and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury stifled the Blue Jackets from there, helping Pittsburgh recover from a two-goal hole for the second time in the series. Columbus led 2-0 and 3-1 in Game 1 before losing 4-3, while the Pens blew the same leads in Saturday’s Game 2 at Consol Energy Center.
Columbus had the home-ice advantage in Game 3, the first NHL playoff game in Ohio’s state capital since 2009. The lively crowd had a chance to get loud right away, as Boone Jenner and Jack Johnson shoved rebound goals past Fleury in the opening 3:18 of the game.
The Penguins almost immediately recovered, however, ending up with a 73-42 advantage in total shot attempts. Much of that edge was created by Pittsburgh’s six power-play chances, none of which ended in a goal but nonetheless pinned Columbus in its zone for long stretches.
Still, the Jackets nearly carried a 2-0 lead into the second intermission. The Columbus defense was clearing lanes for goalie Sergei Bobrovsky to see most shots fired his way, and he denied the Penguins’ first 25.
However, a strong Penguins shift in the final minute of the second period led to defenseman Brooks Orpik cradling and firing a puck past Bobrovsky from between the circles with two seconds left. It was Orpik’s second playoff goal in two seasons, the previous one serving as the series-winner in last year’s first-round matchup with the Islanders.
The deluge began at 5:53 when Sutter deflected Paul Martin‘s point shot past Bobrovsky, giving Martin six assists in the opening three games of the series. Pittsburgh tied the game 70 seconds later off the rush, as Chris Kunitz dropped the puck to Stempniak for a perfect wrist shot to the top-right corner of the net from the right circle.
Stempniak’s first career playoff goal was overshadowed about a minute later by another deflection set up by a defenseman’s long-range drive. Rookie blueliner Olli Maatta took a pass from Evgeni Malkin and wired the puck off the stick of Jokinen and into the net off the chest of Blue Jackets defenseman James Wisniewski.
Dubinsky had Columbus’ best opportunity to tie the game in the final seconds, but his sweet deke around Martin ended in a near miss in front of the net, as the puck drifted off his stick as he cut to the middle. Fleury also made a key save on young Jackets star Ryan Johansen to preserve the one-goal lead – and ultimately the win.
In the end, the 41-shot total by the Penguins indicated a dominant effort, albeit one that was slow to build. The Jackets were once again a worth adversary, but the Metropolitan Division champions reached a level late in the game that the home team couldn’t match.
Pittsburgh can take a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series with a win in Wednesday’s Game 4. Faceoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. at Nationwide Arena.