- Scott Burnside, NHL
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COLUMBUS -- Maybe it was fitting that it ended with a wall of sound being thrown up by the Nationwide Arena faithful trying to will their plucky Columbus Blue Jackets to one more goal, one more miracle.
It didn't turn out that way, though, as the Pittsburgh Penguins, dominant in building a 4-0 lead through two periods, hung on for a 4-3 win that ended this oftentimes wild and wooly Eastern Conference quarterfinal in six games.
As the Blue Jackets watched the final seconds tick away, the crowd -- those not already standing -- rose as one to salute a team that surprised many, if not themselves.
And even as the two teams lined up to shake hands, signaling the end of hostilities, the chants of "C-B-J" continued to echo in the building.
"I think the guys stuck with it. We talked about a sense of pride, and I think the guys, everything they built this year earning people's trust and I think our fan's trust, coming out and finishing it the right way, and I think the fans were appreciative of it," Columbus coach Todd Richards said.
Richards was so sure that his team would complete yet another comeback and would be boarding a plane for Game 7 in Pittsburgh that he said he had no real words for his team at the end of its season.
"They're a great hockey team. They're a great hockey team," Richards said of the Penguins.
"They pushed the last two games. You could see. They've won. They know what it takes."
Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma, once hired by Richards as an assistant coach for the Penguins' AHL affiliate, called the Penguins' victories in Games 5 and 6 to close out the series two of the best games they'd played all year.
Well, for almost all of two games.
And if there is something fitting in the way this ended for the Penguins, it's a reminder of the danger in not finishing the job. As the Blue Jackets surged with three goals in 4:52 midway through the third, it was a lesson that no matter how much talent, how big a lead, the way to play at this time of the year is not to coast -- ever.
"I think we had to check our egos a little to match their intensity. The fans got wound up. It's a bad thing when you give up goal after goal after goal and the momentum it creates," said Chris Kunitz.
"But I think when it got 4-3 and they took their timeout with 1:50 left, I think I think we ended up still changing about five times getting guys on and off the ice trying to do whatever we could. That's kind of how the series went, though, for whatever reason. No one was ever putting a quit in anybody, and they were coming hard. They played a great series, they matched us well. We found a way to win a couple of extra games."
In some ways, the final two games of this series, games that came after Bylsma somewhat daringly challenged his team's commitment to work hard enough to earn wins in the playoffs, were one seamless entity -- a kind of two-act play, if you will.
After dominating the Blue Jackets in a 3-1 win on Saturday, Game 6 belonged to Evgeni Malkin.
The beleaguered Russian star, without a goal in his past nine playoff games heading into Monday, scored twice in the first period and added a third in the second period, prompting a smattering hats to be thrown onto the ice.
In between, Brandon Sutter reinforced his status as the team's unofficial first-round MVP by scoring on a breakaway 34 seconds into the second period to extend the Penguins' lead to 3-0 just as Lee Stempniak was coming back on the ice after a late first-period penalty.
It was Sutter's third goal of the series, and his absence was keenly felt when he left the game after blocking a shot in the second period.
Still, playing without veteran defenseman Brooks Orpik for a second straight game thanks to an undisclosed injury, the Penguins were for the most part solid in their own zone. And when netminder Marc-Andre Fleury was tested, as he was on a break by Derek MacKenzie late in the first period after a Craig Adams giveaway, he was cool and sharp.
Since his faux pas-times-two at the end of Game 4 that allowed Columbus to win in overtime after the Pens had built a 3-0 lead, Fleury has found a playoff comfort zone.
Although he gave up a short-handed goal to Fedor Tyutin, the third short-handed goal of the series for the Blue Jackets, Fleury looked calm and in control even as the game got close in the final minutes. He stopped 24 of 27 shots Monday as the Blue Jackets outshot Pittsburgh 20-12 over the last two periods.
As noted, Crosby still hasn't scored in 11 postseason games, and no doubt he'll be asked about it when the Penguins face off in the second round against either the Philadelphia Flyers or the New York Rangers. But he did collect his sixth assist of the series on Malkin's second goal, and Crosby's hard work along the boards set the stage for Malkin's first even though he didn't register an assist on the play.
"I thought we found our game a lot more the last two games. And played the way we need to. We were on our toes. I think it's one thing to say it, it's another thing to go out there and see it and play that way. We did that here the last couple. That's good. We've got to build off it. I think the playoffs, you have to get better as they go along, and I think we did that here," Crosby said.
Winger James Neal said he could see Malkin's confidence grow after he scored his first and expects a similar coming out party for Crosby at some point in the near future.
"When [Malkin] got that first one, you could see it -- it helps you, it builds your confidence," Neal said. "You know how badly he wanted to score. He got that one off his back and he took over the game, so we need that from him, and you know Sid's going to have a breakout game just the same. Those guys were great all night for us."
He believes the lessons learned from this tough series will be valuable this spring.
"We knew they'd come out hard. But we were on every puck, we were winning every battle," Neal said. "I know we were doing that until the last 10 minutes of the game, but you can't overlook how strong we played throughout the whole game. We need to continue to do that. We'll definitely look back, we definitely learned from this series, and that's what you've got to do if you want to win. You've got to learn from these series and mature and continue to get better."