PITTSBURGH (AP) — Pittsburgh Penguins coach Dan Bylsma wanted to send a message to his team, putting Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin exclusively on the same line.
Consider it received.
Attacking on offense early and often, the Penguins topped the Columbus Blue Jackets 3-1 on Saturday night as Jussi Jokinen scored the go-ahead goal in the third period to help give Pittsburgh a 3-2 lead in the Eastern Conference playoff series.
Pittsburgh peppered Sergei Bobrovsky with 50 shots on goal, keeping the Blue Jackets goalie busy all night.
“We competed hard,” Crosby said. “We played desperate and really aggressive. That’s the game we have to play. It’s not always going to result in 50 shots, but it’s our style of play.”
“That’s the plan for sure. We wanted to have 50, so I think that’s what we did tonight,” said Jokinen. “Playoffs goals are scored in front of the net, second chances, stuff like that, and that’s how I think we scored our both goals. So, that was the plan, yeah.”
Chris Kunitz had a power-play goal and Kris Letang scored into an empty net for Pittsburgh, which has the upstart Blue Jackets on the verge of elimination with an opportunity to close out the series Monday during Game 6 in Columbus.
“Their coach challenged them and they responded,” Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards said. “Now, we have to do the same thing on Monday.”
It hasn’t been easy for the Penguins, a team considered by many a Stanley Cup contender. Columbus, which began the series searching for its first playoff win in franchise history, twice rallied to stun the heavily favored Penguins and outshot Pittsburgh three of the previous four games this series.
Boone Jenner scored the lone goal for Columbus, which played its first Game 5 in franchise history.
“I don’t think anybody in this room would say they’re uncomfortable going into the next game,” Blue Jackets forward Ryan Johansen said. “Like we’ve been saying, all the guys, we believe we can get this done.”
Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury recovered from a game-changing gaffe in Game 4 for the victory on Saturday, making 23 saves. Fleury is 4-1 in his last five games after a playoff overtime loss.
“I think he’s been through so much and been through so many things, I think being in the league as long as he has and dealing with the pressure that he has, I think that he was able to turn the page pretty quickly and that’s what you need to do in the playoffs,” said Crosby of Fleury. “So, he showed his experience here tonight.”
Bobrovsky stopped 48 shots for the Blue Jackets.
“They were going to the net hard and obviously it was something they talked about, to make it hard on Bobrovsky,” Richards said. “It’s how they wanted to play the game.”
Crosby and Malkin, despite playing on the same line and combining for eight shots, still haven’t scored through five playoff games, but the message was sent.
“I think we went into the game with a good idea that we were going to see that,” Bylsma said. “With the matchup, we were able to give those guys a good opportunity to play together and be a force.”
Crosby, who led the league in scoring with 104 points, hasn’t scored in his last 10 playoff games overall, while Malkin has gone nine without a goal. Richards hopes to extend the goal-less drought another game.
“I have the last change, so it’s something I can possibly control a little bit better,” Richards said. “But it makes for something different when you see (Crosby) and (Malkin) on the same line.”
The teams were tied at 1 entering the third, but Jokinen touched a backhand rebound past Bobrovsky along the far post 6:16 into the period. Letang scored an empty-netter with 1:01 to play to seal it.
“I mean, if you get 55 shots and you don’t come out on top that’s a bit disappointing,” said Penguins forward Brandon Sutter. “But I think, we know he’s [Bobrovsky] a good goalie, we know we’ve got to get pucks there and go to the net, and he’s doing a good job. But fortunately, we got a couple bounces around the net and wacked away, and if you look at the goals that were scored tonight, everything was in the crease and around the net, so we can keep going there and keep putting pucks there.”
A 3-1 lead appeared to be a kiss of death for the team leading in the first four games of the series. Not on Saturday.
Both sides endured wild momentum swings through the first four games, all decided by a 4-3 margin where the winning team rallied from a 3-1 deficit every time for the first time in league history. The Penguins twice had an opportunity to take a two-game lead in the series, while Columbus put Pittsburgh in a two-goal hole two times, only to come up short.
The Penguins were seconds away from taking a 3-1 lead during the best-of-seven series in Game 5 when Fleury misplayed a puck behind the net, leading to Brandon Dubinsky’s tying goal that forced overtime and Nick Foligno’s innocent-looking wrist shot from the blue line that evaded Fleury and evened the series.
Fleury, who was benched during Pittsburgh’s run to the conference finals last year, responded Saturday.
“I think it wasn’t about bouncing back, it was just about putting it behind and being ready for tonight and a brand new game,” said Fleury. “You know, even though we’re down by one, I think we played hard and just kept at it, got a lot of shots on net and get the win.”
Jenner helped the Blue Jackets score first Saturday with a power-play goal midway through the opening period. Fleury sprawled to cover a rebound at the top of the crease, but the puck came loose and Jenner jammed a shot home along the near post.
Kunitz tied it with a second-period power-play goal, corralling a bouncing rebound in front of the net and backhanding it past Bobrovsky.
Jokinen’s goal in the third put the Blue Jackets on the brink.
“I expect nothing other than what they’ve done all year, to respond,” Richards said.
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