COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Penguins didn’t just take a punch from Columbus early in Game 3 of their opening-round playoff series Monday night against Columbus at Nationwide Arena.
They absorbed a haymaker. Right between the eyes. The kind that could drop a rhino that had feasted on angel dust at its team meal. Or, at the very least, discourage him quite a bit.
Did no such thing to the Penguins, though.
Penguins Report: Penguins 4, Blue Jackets 3
Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma talks to the media after beating the Blue Jackets during Game 3 at the Nationwide Arena in Columbus. (Video by Peter Diana; 4/21/2014)
They overcame a start that had to be about as bad as they could imagine — or maybe worse — to earn a 4-3 victory that gave them a 2-1 lead in the series. Game 4 will be at 7:08 p.m. Wednesday at Nationwide Arena.
“I don’t think Game 4 can come fast enough for us,” Columbus defenseman Jack Johnson said.
When it arrives, it probably can’t begin any better for Columbus than Game 3 did, as the Blue Jackets scored twice in the first 198 seconds. Trouble was, that left the Penguins plenty of time to get the goals they needed to climb back into the game.
“It wasn’t the start we wanted,” winger Lee Stempniak said. “But we sort of put it behind us and looked forward to the next 55 minutes.”
Turned out to be enough for the Penguins to put four pucks behind Blue Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky. Actually, they needed just eight minutes and eight seconds to do that, as they shoehorned all their goals into a brief stretch near the end of the second period and first half of the third.
In the process, they made the Blue Jackets the third team to lose a game in this series after building a two-goal advantage, widely regarded as the most dangerous lead in hockey.
“It’s abnormal, especially in the playoffs,” Johnson said. “I tell you one thing: In Game 4, I hope we have a 3-1 lead.”
Johnson helped Columbus get its quick, 2-0 lead when he knocked a rebound past Penguins goalie Marc Andre Fleury at 3:18, after Boone Jenner had done the same at 1:38. The crowd was overwhelmingly pro-Blue Jackets — very much a rarity in games at Nationwide Arena in the past decade — and it fueled the home team’s early game surge as Columbus scored on two of its first three shots.
“It was really loud, especially when they got off to that start,” Stempniak said. “They fed off that momentum.”
But it didn’t faze the Penguins, who finished the period with a 16-7 advantage in shots. The catch was that Blue Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky stopped them all.
And, for that matter, the first nine the Penguins threw at him in the second.
“He’s a great goaltender,” Penguins defenseman Kris Letang said. “He won the Vezina for a reason last year.”
Bobrovsky has kept the Penguins’ finest offensive talents — Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal and Chris Kunitz — from scoring a goal through the first three games of this series. Denying defenseman Brooks Orpik indefinitely was apparently a bit too much to ask.
With 1.8 seconds to go before the second intermission, Orpik did a toe-drag in the slot, then threw the puck past Bobrovsky to slice Columbus’ lead to 2-1.
Seemed like an enormous goal at the time — and it was — but, when a Brandon Dubinsky shot caromed off Blue Jackets winger Cam Atkinson and past Fleury at 1:04 of the third, Columbus had another two-goal edge. And the Penguins had taken another shot to the jaw.
Didn’t drop them this time, either. Or stun them, because Brandon Sutter, Stempniak and Jussi Jokinen promptly put three pucks behind Bobrovsky in a span of two minutes, 13 seconds to give the Penguins their only lead. And the only one that mattered.
For most of the first two periods, it looked as if goaltending — mostly, Bobrovsky’s — would decide the game. Turned out, though, that Fleury came through with the stops that made the Penguins’ comeback possible, thanks to a mindset designed to keep him focused on what’s coming, not what has passed.
“Forget that [first goal], and the other one, and stop the next one,” he said. “Just make the next save. I always believe we can come back in games, and we did tonight.”
In large part because Fleury gave his team more than a puncher’s chance.
Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com and Twitter @MolinariPG. First Published April 21, 2014 9:48 PM