By Dan Scifo
From the Point contributor
PITTSBURGH – It started off as a classic case of role reversal.
The Pittsburgh Penguins, the team with star firepower and loads of Stanley Cup playoff experience, looked like the inexperienced bunch, falling behind early against the upstart Columbus Blue Jackets during Game 1 of their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series.
Then the Penguins’ top-ranked power-play unit came to life. And Brandon Sutter finished the job.
Sutter’s third-period goal from the top of the circle rocketed the Penguins past the Blue Jackets, 4-3, Wednesday at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh.
“They’re a good team,” Sutter said. “They play hard, they’re a well-balanced team and they have a good goaltender. It’s going to be a tough series. We expect one-goal games. Those are playoff games and those are the ones we’re proud to win.”
Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin, a former NHL MVP, recorded two assists in his first game back since injuring his foot March 23. Beau Bennett and Matt Niskanen scored power-play goals, while Jussi Jokinen also found the back of the net for the Penguins, who lead the best-of-seven series 1-0. Game 2 is 7 p.m. Saturday in Pittsburgh.
“We have to learn from it, but we found a way to win,” Penguins’ captain Sidney Crosby said. “Obviously, we didn’t start the way we wanted to, getting down two goals. I think we have to clean up some things, but it’s nice to get the first one.”
Former Penguin Mark Letestu scored a power-play goal for Columbus, making its second-ever playoff appearance and first since 2009, while Derek MacKenzie netted a short-hander, and Jack Johnson added a goal and an assist.
The Blue Jackets, still searching for their first playoff win in franchise history, held Crosby in check for the most part, limiting the NHL scoring champion to just one assist. Columbus initially stunned the heavily-favored Penguins, scoring the game’s first goal and racing out to a 3-1 lead, but Pittsburgh battled back with back-to-back power-play goals in 45 seconds, tying the game at 3 after two periods.
Sutter’s wrister from the top of the circle gave Pittsburgh the lead for the first time in the game with 11:42 remaining.
“We didn’t have the lead a lot in this game, but I liked the way we played with the lead,” Penguins’ coach Dan Bylsma said. “There were a lot of responses from our team. They got the first goal, they got up by two goals, they got a shorthanded goal. Our team had to respond in this game and they did.”
Sutter, on a two-on-one with Bennett, initially looked to pass on the game-winner, but decided to shoot. Good thing. It was his third career playoff goal and first game-winner in the post-season.
“You’re coming down and looking for something,” Sutter said. “Once I saw the D go down, I figured I had to shoot it. You just try and pick a side and go for it. Sometimes it goes in, sometimes it doesn’t, but fortunately it did tonight.”
Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury recovered from a shaky start, stopping 31 of 34 shots faced.
Early on, he looked much like the goalie who was benched during Pittsburgh’s run to the conference finals, and the defense wasn’t much better in front of him. But Fleury came up with key stops down the stretch, poke-checking the puck off Matt Calvert’s stick during a breakaway and corralling a bouncing shot from MacKenzie with the Penguins protecting a one-goal lead.
“It’s fun, it’s stressful, but a good feeling to get the win in the end,” Fleury said. “It was a rough start a little bit, two goals in the first, but I tried to stay calm and stay with it and the more shots came, the more confident I felt.”
Goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky and the Blue Jackets couldn’t protect a two-goal lead. Bobrovsky, who allowed five goals during his last playoff start against Pittsburgh as a member of the Philadelphia Flyers, made 28 saves.
With Malkin in the lineup, the Penguins, who enjoyed one of the best seasons in franchise history despite leading the league in man-games lost, were as healthy as they’ve been all season.
That didn’t matter to Columbus, playing without top forwards Nathan Horton, Nick Foligno and Plum native R.J. Umberger.
Columbus refused to be pushed around by the Metropolitan Division-champion Penguins, who swept all five regular-season games between the clubs, outscoring the Blue Jackets 16-7 in the process.
The Blue Jackets are the NHL’s youngest team, averaging 26 years old, and the entire roster has just 251 career games of playoff experience. By contrast, the Penguins – the league’s fourth-oldest team at nearly 29 years old – are perennial Stanley Cup contenders, led by Crosby, Malkin, and a litany of stars boasting a combined 1,154 games of playoff experience.
The Blue Jackets certainly didn’t look out of place.
Columbus moved to the Eastern Conference as part of realignment and the two teams, separated by about a three-hour drive, have no qualms with developing a regional rivalry.
The remaining games in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals should be able to lay a sufficient foundation.
Two of the Blue Jackets’ veterans helped stake Columbus to an early lead.
Brandon Dubinsky worked his way past Penguins’ defenseman Paul Martin at the blue line and sent a drop pass to a trailing Johnson, who stickhandled around Fleury and scored.
Malkin set up Jokinen’s tying goal with 2:47 remaining in the period, setting off a furious frenzy of five goals scored in the next 5:06.
Jokinen’s shot over Bobrovsky’s blocker started things, but Letestu helped Columbus re-gain the lead with a power-play goal 45 seconds later, scored when Rob Scuderi was sent off for interference.
MacKenzie put the Blue Jackets ahead by two goals, 3-1, with a short-handed goal just 43 seconds into the second period, but Pittsburgh scored back-to-back power-play goals in 45 seconds to tie the game at 3.
Bennett scored the first, tipping Niskanen’s shot from the point behind Bobrovsky. Niskanen took care of things himself on the tying goal with a slap shot from the blue line that got past Bobrovsky.
“We got down 3-1 in the game and we had to respond and we did,” Niskanen said. “We responded quickly and I think everybody realized the urgency of the situation because we started to play a lot better after those power plays in the second.”
NOTES: The Penguins are 15-4-1 in 20 games all-time against Columbus… Crosby tied Kevin Stevens for third place on the Penguins’ all-time playoff scoring list… Malkin is one point shy of 100 career playoff points.