Phil Kessel #81 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates his first-period goal with teammates while playing the Columbus Blue Jackets in Game Five of the Eastern Conference First Round during the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at PPG Paints Arena on April 20, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH — The Penguins knew closing out the Blue Jackets wouldn’t be easy. They knew they would scratch and claw and do anything in their power to extend the series to a sixth game.
And that’s exactly what Columbus did for a period of time. Pushed firmly against the wall after falling to a 3-0 deficit early in the second period, the Blue Jackets responded with a vengeance. They cut the lead to two, and then one. Several almost-goals nearly moved the game to a tie or in Columbus’s favor. But it wasn’t enough.
The Penguins held on through the Blue Jackets’ comeback attempt, and then had an offensive outburst, scoring two unanswered goals in the third to win 5-2, and beat the Blue Jackets in five games to move on to the Eastern Conference Semifinals to play Washington or Toronto.
“Most of the season other than a couple of games, we’ve had great third periods when we’ve had leads,” Penguins defenseman Ian Cole said. “We’ve done a great job of shutting teams down in the third and closing teams out.”
Going into the intermission after the second period, Columbus had all the momentum. Two Bryan Rust goals and a Phil Kessel goal before those pushed the Penguins ahead 3-0, but after that, Columbus was dominant in the second period. They controlled play, putting shot after shot on goal, with two of those shots getting past Marc-Andre Fleury.
But the Penguins responded, first with a Sidney Crosby goal on the power play, and then with a Scott Wilson backhand to effectively end the game. It was a much needed offensive outburst, and one that the Penguins confidently felt was coming. Among the defensemen, there’s a sense that if they do enough, and get past the flurries when they come, the offense will eventually pull through.
“We know that if we play solid defense and get pucks out quickly, we’ll have plenty of chances to score,” Cole said.
The confidence is certainly warranted. The Penguins were the top-scoring team in the league for a reason, and Crosby is one of the biggest reasons. Few, if any, in the league can match his talent, and that was on display on his power-play goal -- a one-timer rocket off of one knee -- the type of shot that not many players can make.
“You just look at Sid’s goal. He puts that in the perfect spot,” Penguins defenseman Justin Schultz said. “The talent we have in this room, they can put the puck in the back of the net.”
But beyond Crosby, it just so happens that the Penguins have numerous other players that can make shots like that. They have Evgeni Malkin, they have Kessel. Then there’s Rust, Conor Sheary and Jake Guentzel. The list goes on and on.
“Those types of players, they have the ability to be difference-makers in one or two shifts. They could have a quiet game for two periods and have a couple of shifts in the third period and it changes the outcome of games,” Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan said.
“I think that’s what elite players do. That’s what separates them from others. And we’ve got a number of them on our team. I think that’s one of the things that makes our team as competitive as it is, is these guys they get big goals at key times that change outcomes.”
That type of talent makes the Penguins a ticking time bomb of sorts, an offensive outburst waiting to happen. They might go quiet at times, and then the defense and goaltending has the keep the opponent at bay, like they had to do in the second period. But so far, that time bomb has almost always gone off.
“I always have in the back of mind that all it takes is one shift or two shifts that these guys ratchet it up a notch and they have the ability to do it, and we’ve seen it time and time again,” Sullivan said.
But beyond the Penguins’ offensive talent, it would be remiss not to mention Fleury’s efforts Thursday. Hit with 51 shots, it wouldn’t have been unreasonable to expect Fleury to crumble at the pressure the Blue Jackets put on him. But Fleury stayed strong, holding off Columbus long enough before the Penguins’ offensive outburst.
“Flower played unbelievable again tonight,” Kessel said. “When you’ve got a goalie that stands on his head like that and makes a lot of saves, it makes it easy on you.”
But for all those saves that Fleury made, the defensemen certainly wish that he would’ve had to stop less. Fifty-one shots on goal is far from ideal, and moving into the second round, surrendering less shots will be a point of emphasis.
“Defense wins championships,” Schultz said. “You’ve got to be good defensively.”
For the Penguins, though, that cliche doesn’t hold true. Solid defense and goaltending makes it easier, but that’s just window dressing for what makes the Penguins click. It’s that offense, that talent-laden offense that makes the Penguins a threat to repeat as Stanley Cup champions. And it’s that offense that moved them into the second round.