Pittsburgh Penguins coach Dan Bylsma publicly criticized his team’s “battle level” following a Game 4 loss in their first-round Stanley Cup playoff series against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
From the looks of Saturday’s Game 5, the Penguins shored up that concern nicely.
In a game that defined the usual max-effort grind of NHL playoff hockey, Pittsburgh rebounded from an early Columbus goal to earn a 3-1 victory at Consol Energy Center. The Pens lead the best-of-seven series 3-2 with Game 6 scheduled for Monday in Ohio.
Jussi Jokinen snapped a 1-1 tie 6:16 into the third period by shoveling a loose puck into the open right side of the net, his team-leading third goal of the playoffs. Lee Stempniak made the play happen with a nifty move to get free at the Columbus blue line; he fired a wrister from the left circle that goalie Sergei Bobrovsky stopped, but Brandon Sutter hacked it loose to Jokinen.
From there the Penguins continued to keep the accelerator pressed to the floor, finishing with 51 shots on goal, a Consol Energy Center record, and 82 total attempts. Kris Letang put the finishing touches on the pivotal victory when he pushed the puck into an empty net with 1:01 to play, taking a pass from a diving Craig Adams.
Chris Kunitz earned the second assist on the final tally, giving him two points on the night. He stuffed in a power-play goal 7:42 into the second period after getting the puck from Sidney Crosby in front of the net. Kunitz was one of many Penguins who turned in their best performances of the series, along with Sutter, Letang and Rob Scuderi.
Incredibly, the team that scored first lost again, as also happened in the first four games of the series. Game 5 was different, though, mainly in how the Penguins configured their lineup. Crosby and Evgeni Malkin still haven’t scored goals against Columbus, but they generated more offense on the same line Saturday than they had been doing separately.
With Marcel Goc returning from injury, Bylsma was able to push Sutter up onto the second unit, with Stempniak, Jokinen and James Neal rotating on his wings. Joe Vitale had a strong game centering the fourth line, digging in on the forecheck to create havoc, while defenseman Robert Bortuzzo made his playoff debut in place of the injured Brooks Orpik.
Pittsburgh outshot Columbus 15-9 in the first period, although both sides looked tight and tentative in the opening minutes. The Jackets received the first extended power-play opportunity of the night, and they capitalized for their fifth man-advantage goal of the series when Boone Jenner shoved his third of the playoffs into the net at 12:55.
Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, looking to recover after his late stickhandling gaffe cost his team Game 4, wasn’t at his best on Jenner’s goal, as he failed to cover the puck when he had the chance. However, he was sharp otherwise, denying the Jackets 23 times when they did find room in the offensive zone.
But the puck mostly belonged to the Penguins all evening. The home side matched the visitors’ energy level and, more importantly, managed the puck well in all three zones. Pittsburgh’s second period was especially dominant, as it created 21 shots in the frame, a franchise playoff record.
Bobrovsky, last season’s Vezina Trophy winner, was in his best form, too. His 48 saves were the most by a losing goalie in a regulation playoff game since 2008.
The Pens will have their first chance to dispatch the Jackets on Monday night at Nationwide Arena. Faceoff is set for 7 p.m.