The Blue Jackets stormed into game one of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, outshooting and outhitting the Pittsburgh Penguins on the way to owning the first period.
Unfortunately, they didn't convert any of their early chances and the Pens walked away with a one-game lead in the series, thanks to a 3-1 win fueled by a dominant second period.
Scott Hartnell set the tone early, leveling Pittsburgh superstar center Sidney Crosby just minutes into the game at center ice. Josh Anderson matched his teammate moments later when he throttled the Pens other superstar, Evgeni Malkin.
Meanwhile, the Blue Jackets forwards showed energy, forcing play in the Penguins' zone, while goalie Sergei Bobrovsky did his part, shutting down Pittsburgh's Phil Kessel on the doorstep midway through the period.
Active play from the Blue Jackets, particularly Brandon Saad and Nick Foligno, eventually led to a power play, coming at 17:39 of the first, when Olli Maatta was called for hooking. Columbus would generate good chances on four shots, but were unable to convert and the teams would head in for the first intermission of a scoreless game.
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The Jackets outshot the Pens, 16–3, in the first and optimism was high in Old Columbus Town.
And then the teams took the ice for the second period.
Byran Rust put the Penguins on the board just 1:15 into the period when he took a kick-pass from Phil Kessel, skated right down the middle and beat Bobrovsky high glove side. It was just Pittsburgh's fourth shot of the game, but the shots that go in count more than the ones that do not.
150 seconds later, Kessel made it 2-0, Penguins, when he beat Bobrovsky with a blast from the left circle. Malkin picked up his second assist on the goal, which came on the power play after Matt Calvert was whistled for tripping. Blue Jackets defenseman Scott Harrington hesitated just enough to give Kessel a clear shot.
Things quickly went from bad to worse for the Blue Jackets when Alexander Wennberg was hit with a high stick on the ensuing faceoff, which wasn't called. Two minutes later, Malkin found Kessel all alone at the blue line, but Bobrovsky was able to deny the breakaway.
Pittsburgh would continue to dominate the second – they'd end the period with a 16–4 advantage on shots – and the Penguins made it 3-0 when Nick Bonino banged in a loose puck on Bobrovsky's doorstep with a little over three minutes remaining in the period. Rookie Garbriel Carlsson, making his first start in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, was unable to move Bonino off the puck and Columbus paid the price.
This shot heat map from Natural Stat Trick tells the story of the first two periods perfectly:
Each team dominated one period in shots. One team's shots mattered – or in other words, one team went to the net, while the other team didn't.
“I think they got that first one and put us on our heels a little bit and then got more momentum with their second,” Blue Jackets winger Brandon Dubinsky said. “We had some not-so-good minutes where we lost momentum.
“We have to be able to answer and respond in the right way.”
The Penguins were content to play keep-away in the third, forcing shots and opportunities wide and clearing their zone whenever it made sense, as any team would with a 3-0 lead in the playoffs.
Finally, Matt Calvert broke Marc-Andre Fleury's shutout 12:41 into the third on an unassisted goal.
The play seemed to reinvigorate the Blue Jackets, but the Pens were able to choke out any remaining signs of life and hold on to defend home ice.
Bobrovsky, the favorite to capture the Vezina Trophy as the league's top goalie, stopped 26 of the 29 shots he faced on the night. His counterpart, Fleury, in net for the injured Matt Murray, stopped 25 of 26 shots.
“We have to capitalize on our chances, too,” Blue Jackets captain Nick Foligno said after the game. “Our offensive guys in here need to step up, and will. I have no worries. It's game one. I'm not going to overreact on one game. There's lots of hockey left.”
Game two of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals is Friday at Pittsburgh's PPG Paints Arena, and the Blue Jackets would really like to steal one before the series moves back to Columbus.
The puck drops at 7 p.m. FSO has local coverage while the NHL Network has out-of-market coverage of the game.