Penguins face an end or extension of first-round series

Penguins hope to finish off the Blue Jackets tonight



COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The Penguins have two choices.

They can win Game 6 starting at 7:08 p.m. today of their opening-round playoff series at Nationwide Arena, claiming a spot in Round 2 by ending the Blue Jackets' season.

Or they can lose Game 6, and have their season reduced to a best-of-60-minutes crapshoot Wednesday night at Consol Energy Center, when history suggests they would have a good chance of rolling snake eyes.

While most players probably are blissfully unaware of it, the hard reality is that, of the eight Game 7s the Penguins have played on home ice, they have won two of them. None since 1995.

But it's not precedent that will motivate the Penguins to close out the series this evening, because there are more practical considerations.

Having a couple of extra days of rest before starting the second round, for example. And avoiding the physical and emotional toll that a Game 7 could take.

And, most important, eliminating any possibility that their season could be over by mid-week.

For as long as the Blue Jackets have a professional pulse, they are a viable threat to jettison the Penguins into the offseason.

"You want to win it as soon as you can," Penguins right winger Lee Stempniak said. "If you give the other team life, it gives them something to hold onto and hope for."

The Blue Jackets have battled like a honey badger with a toothache since the earliest shifts of Game 1, and there's no reason to think that will change now that they're facing elimination.

"I have no doubt that Game 6 will be out best effort yet," Columbus left winger R.J. Umberger said. "We'll lay it all on the line. We have nothing to lose."

Well, nothing except a playoff series, anyway.

The teams have alternated victories since the series began, and the Penguins are coming off a 3-1 decision Saturday night in Game 5 at home.

Their performance hardly was flawless -- some of their puck movement, especially in the first half of the game, appeared to have been scripted by the Marx Brothers -- but it was their best overall effort of the series, and could provide a template for Game 6.

"Obviously, they're probably going to give everything they have at home," forward Jussi Jokinen said. "We have to try to play the same way we did [in Game 5]: Get pucks deep, keeping forechecking two guys and keep hunting pucks."

Road teams have won two of the five games so far, so home ice hasn't been a major advantage.

Nonetheless, the Blue Jackets figure to have the benefit of another loud, supportive crowd, as they did for Games 3 and 4.

The Penguins, though, insist that the decibel level in Nationwide Arena doesn't faze them. Indeed, several said the crowd noise actually helps them, as well.

"It was fun to play in," defenseman Paul Martin said. "The fans were loud, it was intense. It was a good atmosphere for hockey, to be in it. It's a great playoff atmosphere.

"It's something you thrive on on the road in the playoffs. You have to stick together as a team. That's just part of the game. It's always better to have it loud like that than quiet."

A number of Blue Jackets whose profiles, at least among casual fans, aren't terribly high outside of central Ohio have made frequent appearances in headlines and highlights in this series -- rookie center Boone Jenner comes immediately to mind -- but several Penguins declined to single out any Columbus players who might be performing better than anticipated.

Rather, they focused on how Columbus is stronger and more accomplished, as a group, than some observers realized a couple of weeks ago.

"Down the stretch [in the regular season], they were one of the better teams in hockey, as far as winning games and putting points on the board," Martin said.

"The way we played against them in the regular season, everyone assumed they're not that good of a team but I think, in general, they are a really good team."

That much has become clear since the middle of the month. The pressing issue now is whether the Blue Jackets are good enough to keep the series going past tonight.

"You don't risk going to a Game 7," Penguins forward Craig Adams said. "Obviously, all of the games in this series have been, essentially, one-goal games.

"Those games can go either way. You don't want to leave it until Game 7."


Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com and Twitter @MolinariPG.

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