Blue Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky makes a save on the Penguins' Brandon Sutter Saturday in Game 5 at Consol Energy Center.
By Shelly Anderson / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The Penguins found an effective response to the Columbus forecheck in a 3-1 win Saturday in Game 5 of the teams' first-round playoff series.
In the course of what Matt Niskanen on Sunday called "our most complete game as a defensive group," the Penguins kept the Blue Jackets from setting up in their offensive zone for long stretches.
In part, that's because they fought fire with fire.
"I think they were trying to establish that, but on our end, our forecheck was much better," Niskanen said. "You saw a lot of the game we were able to establish that. They didn't have the energy in the offensive zone to forecheck because of what we were doing in the offensive zone."
And when the Blue Jackets did get possession in the neutral zone and look for the dump-ins with the puck that had led to establishing a forecheck earlier in the series, they weren't able to execute it because the Penguins quickly were headed up ice toward the Columbus end.
"We didn't have much of a forecheck," Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards said of Game 5. "That put a lot of pressure on our defense and on our goaltender.
"When we had opportunities to dump it, [they] weren't great dumps. Didn't have the speed that we needed to get in on the forecheck. [The Penguins] executed coming out of their own zone."
That could be a blueprint for the Penguins in Game 6 tonight at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. They have a 3-2 series lead and a chance to close out the series and advance to Round 2.
Taking away the Blue Jackets' strong forecheck is a kick in the knees to them.
"It's always been a key to our game," Blue Jackets center Mark Letestu said. "It drives the energy of our team. It's something that's going to be key for us all the way through the playoffs."
The intent is to dump the puck into one of the corners, then swarm the Penguins defensemen and any backchecking forwards. That's designed not only to gain possession in the Penguins end, but also to wear down their defensemen with physical play and keep them from breaking out of that zone on a quick transition.
"It's pretty simple for us. It's how we manage the puck, getting it in -- getting it all the way in -- to their zone where you can forecheck," Richards said. "They do a good job in the neutral zone. I went back in preparing for this series ... from Jan. 1 all the way to the end of the year. There wasn't one goal that they gave up that was off of a neutral-zone transition -- at least that I saw.
"Our emphasis in that position coming up the ice from our own zone, has to be getting the puck all the way into the zone. We're playing anything shorter than a 200-foot game, it favors them."
The Blue Jackets' hit count can be reflective of their forechecking success. They outhit the Penguins by a significant margin in each of the first four games of this series, running up 215 hits. In Game 5, Columbus had its smallest hit count of the series -- 37 -- three more than the Penguins had.
"It's aggressive," Letestu said of the Blue Jackets forecheck. "That's the one word we've always talked about -- being aggressive, being relentless. It all starts for us with good puck decisions -- if we can keep the puck away from the goaltender, keep the puck in the corner, get some pressure on, get some hits.
"Our focus is by the third period, hopefully, through being physical and getting those hits, the [defensemen] are going to be a little slower to go back for those pucks and maybe be under a little more pressure, make some plays quicker then they're used to making."
That's not unique in the NHL, but the Blue Jackets have an all-in philosophy.
"I think what sets these guys apart from a lot of teams we play is the depth that they have, how everyone is committed to going hard on the forecheck," Penguins forward Joe Vitale said. "Sometimes you'll play teams where maybe a couple of lines will go really hard, then a couple of lines maybe don't come at us hard -- maybe more patient, maybe the skilled, high-end guys trying to read the play.
"But these guys seem like every line is committed to dump it into the good areas and going as hard as they can. It's almost like wave after wave of forecheck. It can be frustrating."
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