|ESPN.com: NHL Playoffs 2014||[Print without images]|
PITTSBURGH -- The challenge was starkly simple for the Pittsburgh Penguins: prove you are better than you've shown.
Prove you can play hard for more than a few minutes at a time, prove you aren't being suffocated by the weight of expectation, failure and miscues, or, worse, prove you aren't so self-absorbed that you merely expect to win as a matter of course.
If they do that, the Penguins regain control of this opening-round series against the relentless Columbus Blue Jackets and maybe regain control of their own playoff destiny.
In the end, the Penguins rose to the challenge, turning in their most inspired, complete performance of the postseason with a 3-1 victory, which gives them a 3-2 series lead over the Blue Jackets with Game 6 set for Monday night in Columbus, Ohio.
The final score illustrated just how different this game was from the first four of the series. During each of those games, the losing team wasted 3-1 leads and, in fact, the team scoring first has now lost all five games in the series. The Penguins' loss in Game 4, in which they actually led 3-0, led head coach Dan Bylsma to somewhat shockingly question his team's effort, competitive and battle levels.
"We weren't happy with how we played the first four games. We weren't consistent enough. Today we worked really hard. We need to remember how hard we worked tonight and how much we paid the price. We just kept coming after them. We all know they're going to be better Monday, and we need [to be] playing the same way we played tonight," offered Jussi Jokinen, who scored the winner early in the third period when a loose puck came to him at the side of the Columbus net after a long period of sustained Pittsburgh pressure.
Instead of the blown leads, wild ebbs and flows in emotion and puck control that had marked the first four games, Saturday's game saw a much more dedicated Pittsburgh team handle a youthful Columbus team in the manner many believed they would throughout this series.
Although the Jackets scored first on the power play with Boone Jenner finding a loose puck after netminder Marc-Andre Fleury couldn't get his catching glove on a rebound in front of the net, the Penguins dominated pace of play and puck possession.
They outshot the Blue Jackets 21-8 in the second period and tied the game on a Chris Kunitz power-play goal, the second straight game in which the Canadian Olympian has scored.
|Sergei Bobrovsky made 48 saves, and it still wasn't enough to get the Blue Jackets a win in Game 5.|
By the end of the game, the Penguins had launched 51 shots at the Columbus net, and Blue Jackets netminder Sergei Bobrovsky had by far his finest game of the series.
"There's no question we knew they were going to come out harder and more physical and compete harder. When your coach calls you out, it's expected," Columbus forward R.J. Umberger said.
"It was kind of tilted a lot of the game."
Columbus forward (and former Penguin) Mark Letestu said they were aware of the drama surrounding Bylsma's comments heading into Game 5, and it's clear the Pens responded.
"They were consistently coming in waves all night tonight. We didn't give Bob [Bobrovsky] enough tonight. He played great," Letestu said.
"We've got to find a way to get more."
The intervening 48 hours will be filled with lots of questions about how the Blue Jackets can answer this more complete Penguins team.
Columbus head coach Todd Richards said he expects what he's seen from his team all season: resilience.
When the team needed to respond to a disappointing performance, they did.
"That's something that the guys have done," he said.
If the Penguins are able to replicate their effort from Game 5, it will be a significant challenge for Richards' group.
If there has been questioning of Bylsma in the past, it has centered on his ability to adapt within games or series. With Brooks Orpik out with an undisclosed injury, Bylsma juggled his defensive pairings on Saturday, moving Robert Bortuzzo with Rob Scuderi and Kris Letang pairing up with Paul Martin.
Up front, Marcel Goc played in his first playoff game with the Penguins after coming back from an injury sustained late in the regular season. And Bylsma used Evgeni Malkin with Sidney Crosby and Kunitz most of the night.
While the juggling of the lines produced only three goals (Letang scored into an open net), this was a powerful statement from the Penguins. The line of Jokinen, James Neal and Brandon Sutter might have been the most dangerous of all the Penguins' combinations.
While he wasn't tested all that severely, Fleury made a powerful statement, too, after coming under fire for bungling a shootout in the final minute of regulation in Game 4, allowing the Blue Jackets to tie the game, and then failing to coral Nick Foligno's floating wrist shot early in overtime.
But even before the national anthem was sung Saturday, the Consol Energy Center faithful were chanting his name. And they did so again as the game ended, a nice bookend of support for the beleaguered Fleury, who ended up stopping 23 of 24 shots.
"I think all the players in the room realize that without him we wouldn't have even been in that situation [in Game 4], so he definitely had a bounce-back game tonight. Played great for us. And I think the crowd chanting his name right before the game was big for him. I think he knows that everyone in here has complete trust in him," Martin said.
So much of Game 5 was about the Penguins' personality, whether they could summon the kind of effort that all teams must have consistently to win in the playoffs regardless of their star quality.
And it was interesting to hear Martin talk about how the issues of effort and consistency were never really discussed by the Penguins during the regular season, as they won in spite of crippling injuries and sewed up the Metropolitan Division crown early even though they didn't play that well after the Olympic break.
"We never really addressed it up until this point. We just would play, and I think with the expectations, I think we always expected to be the team that we had for the regular season, the ways that we won games, eventually someone took over -- Sid [Crosby] or whoever -- and found ways for us to win no matter who was in the lineup," Martin said.
But as the series has gone along, the team has realized that isn't necessarily going to happen against the Blue Jackets, who have consistently beaten the Penguins to pucks and made them pay for turnovers and mistakes.
They had to confront the issue, and the results were on display Saturday night.
"It would have been easy to feel real down on ourselves, but I thought starting with Marc coming out with a tremendous effort and playing well and the entire room ... able to keep our intensity level and our pace of play real high really helped," Scuderi said.
No team wins a Cup with a Game 5 win in a series like this.
Heck, you don't even guarantee yourself a first-round series win against an underdog opponent as tenacious as these Blue Jackets have proven themselves to be.
But what a game like this does is illustrate that change is possible, that adjustments can be made and that effort can be delivered when there is debate about whether any of that is possible.
It would, of course, be unwise to look beyond Monday's game against the Columbus Blue Jackets, but it's also possible down the road we'll look back at this game as a turning point for this Pittsburgh Penguins team.