The Penguins are now just one game away from being done with the Columbus Blue Jackets and their repeated attempts at committing assault and battery instead of playing hockey, before moving on to the next round of the playoffs. With one game left for a first-round sweep, all the Pens need to do now is just finish the job.
It took 13 minutes of overtime Sunday, but the Penguins won Game 3 by a score of 5-4, taking a 3-0 lead in the series. The Penguins hadn’t trailed at any point in the series coming into Game 3 but found themselves down 1-0 after only 11 seconds. After scoring just two goals combined in the first two games of the series, Columbus scored three goals in just over six minutes of the first period. But for the third straight game, the Pens were able to survive another slow start, this time overcoming a 3-1 deficit before clawing all the way back for the win in overtime.
We know the Blue Jackets aren’t used to being in the playoffs. They’ve only made it three times in their 17 years of existence. That alone might explain their approach in Games 1 and 2, when they decided that beating up the Penguins was more important than scoring goals.
What else do we know as we head into Game 4? Well, we know (at least) five things…
1. Jake Guentzel came to play.
Allegedly, Guentzel is a 22-year-old rookie who is playing in his first-career NHL postseason. You wouldn’t guess that at all from watching him – until you saw a close-up of him on the bench, where he still looks a couple of years years removed from his high school prom.
Nonetheless, in his first three playoff games, he has two game-winning goals. Not too shabby. His hat-trick securing, overtime goal gave the Pens the win in Game 3 and was the first ever three-goal night in a postseason game from a rookie in Penguins history.
Long before Game 3, this 22-year-old rookie has been showing the presence of mind to always be in the right place at the right time. And that theme played out in the game winner, showing he has the talent to finish the opportunities he helps create:
The three goals put Guentzel’s playoff point total at five, giving him a tie with linemate Sidney Crosby for second-most so far this postseason. Guentzel ended the regular season on fire, too, finishing with five goals and three assists in his last five games.
We know that as long as Guenztel is on a line with Crosby, his opportunities to score are always going to be there. We’re beginning to learn just how good this kid is at finishing them, even at the end of high-pressure postseason games.
2. It’s not just Sid and the kids.
A lot was made of Columbus and their strategy of having Brandon Dubinsky and his line try to slow down Crosby. Of course, this has not worked at all, as through three games the Crosby line has totaled 11 points. They’ve done just as bad at stopping the Malkin line, which also racked up 11 points.
The Blue Jackets have had no answers for the Penguins’ top-two lines, but the scoring doesn’t stop there. Actually, the Jackets aren’t stopping anyone. Fifteen of the 18 skaters the Penguins have dressed this postseason have registered at least one point. The Pens have scored a total of 13 goals from seven different players.
We knew the Penguins had the better depth in the matchup with Columbus, and it’s the advantage that’s been the most important for them as this series has unfolded. We know of no reason to think that recipe will be changing at all heading into Game 4.
3. The Jackets greatest strength has become their biggest weakness.
Sergei Bobrovsky had an incredible regular season for the Jackets, going 41-17-5, with .931 save-percentage and a 2.07 goals-against average. He was the backbone all season for a Columbus team that relied on him to steal them games, and more often than not, that’s what he did.
The thing is, Bobrovsky is always an incredible regular season goalie. The asterisk next to his name, however, has always been his poor performance in the postseason, and the story is the same for him once again.
Bobrovsky’s postseason record now stands at 2-9-1 to go along with a .892 save-percentage. Of course, not all of this falls on him. We know the Jackets didn’t help him with much offense in Games 1 and 2. But in Game 3, Bob was shaky at best. Can he do anything to turn it around in Game 4? We know his numbers — and history — aren’t on his side.
4. Marc-Andre Fleury has been a game changer.
Fleury is doing his job and then some for the Penguins right now.
It’s been almost two months since the trade deadline, when we didn’t know if Fleury would even be a Penguin this postseason. Now, with a 3-0 record firmly solidifying Jim Rutherford’s decision to keep him as postseason insurance (whether or not Rutherford really wanted to keep him), Fleury might be close to staking a claim on the starting job the rest of the postseason.
Fleury was solid in Games 1 and 2, and even though he allowed four past him in Game 3, his save in OT (above) was him literally throwing everything he had at keeping the Penguins alive.
Fleury’s series in a nutshell: He stood on his head. He played out of his head. Then he used his head. Fleury is in the zone right now, and we know the Penguins will need him to head-off the Jackets in Game 4.
5. Hitting for the sake of hitting accomplishes nothing.
Columbus players and their coach John Tortorella are quick to bring up hitting and playing physical whenever they’ve been asked about their strategy against the Penguins this series. It played out to the extreme when Matt Calvert’s broke his stick across Tom Kuhnhackl’s back at the end of the Game 2. For the series, the Jackets have accumulated 133 hits to the Penguins 93 and, of course, trail them in games won, zero to three.
In the first period of Game 3, the Penguins were leading in hits 13 to 12, but trailing on the scoreboard. When the Pens began rallying back, Columbus handled it by reverting back to the only thing they know.
Seeing the Pens go hit for hit with the Jackets would satisfy a lot of fans back in Pittsburgh who would love nothing more than to see noted punching expert Tom Sestito get a start in Game 4 to settle some scores.
But we should know by now, hockey fans, that goals are ultimately what wins games. And we should also know that getting this series over with, as quickly as possible, would be a huge benefit for the Penguins heading into the second round. We think Mike Sullivan and the Penguins probably know that, too.
So, now, all that stands between the Penguins and the second round is Game 4 in Columbus. We know the Jackets don’t want to be swept, we’ll see how much fight they have left Tuesday night.