In this most bizarre of series, it couldn’t ever be easy for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Even after dominating every aspect of play through 50 minutes, even after one of their superstar centers broke his goal drought in a huge way, even after they finally quieted the crowd at Nationwide Arena, it couldn’t be easy.
Still, the Penguins are moving on, and the Columbus Blue Jackets are headed home after a 4-3 decision Monday night in Game 6 of an Eastern Conference Stanley Cup playoff series.
With Evgeni Malkin pacing the way with an explosive hat trick and Brandon Sutter adding his latest breakaway goal, the Penguins built a 4-0 lead through two periods. Columbus nearly pulled off the most improbable rally in this series of rallies, but they fell just short of forcing a Game 7 in the franchise’s first trip to the postseason since 2009.
2009 was the year the Penguins last won the title, with Malkin taking home the Conn Smythe Trophy after leading the playoffs in scoring. No. 71 was in that type of form Monday, breaking a nine-game postseason goal-less streak with gusto.
But, much like they did after taking a 3-0 lead in Game 4, the Penguins became more passive in the final period, allowing the Jackets to get their legs back. Fedor Tyutin‘s shorthanded goal, Columbus’ third of the series, got the comeback started at 10:21 of the third, followed by Artem Anisimov‘s power-play tally with 6:06 to go.
The Jackets almost cut the lead further after the next faceoff when Matt Calvert had a partial breakaway, but Marc-Andre Fleury came out to make the save. Fleury, who finished with 24 stops, also denied defenseman Jack Johnson from the left circle during Columbus’ late surge.
Fleury didn’t have a chance to stop Nick Foligno‘s perfect redirect from the slot with 4:47 to play that trimmed the lead to one. The ensuing roar from Jackets partisans nearly crumbled the rafters, but the Penguins played an airtight defensive game the rest of the way.
With Columbus goalie Sergei Bobrovsky off for an extra attacker in the final minutes, Pittsburgh had the better offensive chances thanks to tenacious work along the boards and behind the net. Sidney Crosby, who assisted on Malkin’s first two goals, nearly missed on snapping his own 10-game goal drought when his backhand from center ice just missed finding the empty net.
And so, with Chris Kunitz smothering the puck in the corner, time expired to propel the Penguins into the second round for the second year in a row. Pittsburgh also became the first team in the series to win a game after scoring first; the opening five games had featured one three-goal comeback, three two-goal rallies and Pittsburgh’s push from 1-0 down in Game 5 to regain the series lead.
For the second straight game, Crosby and Malkin played together for much of the night. Their dynamism led to the opening strike 9:11 into the first, when Crosby won a battle along the boards, then Kunitz picked up the puck and fed Malkin for a clinical finish from the right circle.
Malkin burned Bobrovsky again at 13:13 of the first, this time grabbing a one-touch pass from Crosby during a power play and throwing a dart off the crossbar and in. Pittsburgh outshot Columbus 16-7 in the opening 20 minutes, an accurate portrayal of how much the visitors controlled play.
Sutter grew the lead to 3-0 just 34 seconds into the second with his patented backhand breakaway move. Then, with the Jackets pressing to get back in the game, Jussi Jokinen sprung Malkin and James Neal on a 2-on-1 rush that Malkin finished with an accurate wrister at 15:22. It was Malkin’s first playoff hat trick since Game 2 of the 2009 East final against Carolina.
Pittsburgh’s cause was hurt by two injuries in the second half of the game. Sutter awkwardly jammed his right leg against the boards in the second period and didn’t return, while fourth-line center Joe Vitale went knee-on-knee with Blake Comeau in the third. Vitale’s injury appeared more serious, as he needed help to get off the ice.
The Pens will open the second round against either the Rangers or Flyers over the weekend. New York leads the series 3-2 with Game 6 scheduled for Tuesday.
Note: Pittsburgh defenseman Matt Niskanen earned a pair of secondary assists, giving him eight points (2g, 6a) in the series. Fellow blueliner Paul Martin was held off the scoresheet, but he also registered eight points, all assists.