COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The Columbus Blue Jackets wilted under the bright lights of Stanley Cup playoff hockey. They couldn’t handle the pressure of Game 3 of their first-round series Monday night against the Penguins at Nationwide Arena. They were so eager to please their fans that they couldn’t deal with a 3-1, third-period lead in their first home postseason game in five years. Almost unbelievably, they gave up three unanswered goals in a span of 2:13 and lost, 4-3. They didn’t have what it takes to close the deal and take a 2-1 edge in the series.
That’s how Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik saw it, anyway.
“They got really nervous. They were rattled. We could see it …
“When we got our second goal, they started playing not to lose. When you see that, you try to jump on them. They started throwing the puck around. They started retreating. They gave away the neutral zone. They did what an inexperienced team does. They played not to lose.”
Columbus coach Todd Richards’ take on the hurtful loss was nearly the same, much as he hated to admit it.
“There was a lot of emotion. I think the emotion, at times, kind of derailed us. What I mean by that is our thinking out on the ice. We got caught up in the moment at times, myself included. It sidetracks your game. We were out of position. Our structure wasn’t as good.”
The Penguins went into the series with nearly five times the edge in playoff experience, 1,154 games to 251. It really showed in Game 3 in a couple of ways. One, the Penguins didn’t panic when Columbus scored goals on two of its first three shots to take a 2-0 lead just 3:18 in. And two, the Blue Jackets tightened up after Brandon Sutter pulled the Penguins to 3-2 on a deflection with 14:07 left.
“When you’re younger, you don’t think that experience means that much,” Orpik said. “But it does. Young legs and young energy are good, but I think the experience card trumps that every time.”
The Penguins played it after defenseman Jack Johnson scored to give the Blue Jackets that early 2-0 lead. Coach Dan Bylsma called a timeout to give his players a chance to regroup, especially goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who had allowed both goals on rebounds. Fleury, who has known plenty of postseason success and failure, was superb the rest of the way. His teammates kept firing shots at Columbus goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, finally breaking through on an unlikely goal by Orpik, of all people, with 1.8 seconds left in the second period to make it 2-1. “We knew we would be OK if we could just break the ice,” Orpik said. His goal ended more than 103 minutes of frustration against Bobrovsky, who had made 53 consecutive saves going back to the first period of Game 2.
“I thought our composure was great,” Orpik said.
“The experience helps. We’ve been through some wild series,” captain Sidney Crosby said. “We believe in our game, especially the way we were playing. We didn’t panic. There was a good mood on the bench even when we were down 2-0. Guys stuck with it.”
The Penguins showed the same resolve after Columbus made it 3-1 early in the third period on a fluke goal off the body of winger Cam Atkinson. Sutter, Lee Stempniak and Jussi Jokinen quickly scored goals, much to the disbelief of the big crowd. The Blue Jackets, so strong for so long, suddenly had no answers.
“This is a team that we’re playing that has been in this position a number of times,” Richards said. “They’ve won. They know what it takes to win.”
The Blue Jackets aren’t there yet. That’s one of the big reasons the Penguins are heavy favorites to win the series. They could take another big step in that direction with a win tonight in Game 4.
Richards predicted a better effort by his team. “I think we know what to expect now. We got Game 1 in our building out of the way.” Richards sounded much more optimistic Tuesday than he did after the tough loss little more than 12 hours earlier when he talked about “the emotional toll” such a defeat took. “This is what we have to manage. It’s all about getting over it.”
Bylsma, for his part, merely wants the Penguins to keep playing the same way. Their attention to detail in Game 3 was so much better than in Game 2 at home when blew a 3-1 lead and lost, 4-3, in double overtime because they gave up a killer short-handed goal and took three third-period penalties. Their Game 3 dominance was clear; they outshot the Blue Jackets, 41-20.
“For a good 45 minutes or so, that was our best hockey as far as staying focused, staying on course and playing the right way,” Bylsma said.
It’s called experience.
It’s invaluable at playoff time.
Ron Cook: email@example.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the “Cook and Poni” show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.