Penguins hold off Blue Jackets rally for 4-3 win; claim first-round playoff series



COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Its cannon has been silenced, its colors struck.

Columbus can change its official playoff hashtag from #BattleOn to #BattleOver.

But eliminating the Blue Jackets Monday night, as the Penguins did with a 4-3 victory at Nationwide Arena, wasn't as easy as it could have been.

Or should have been.

The Penguins built a 4-0 lead, thanks mainly to Evgeni Malkin's second career playoff hat trick and, by the middle of the third period, seemed safe to begin contemplating whether they will face Philadelphia or the New York Rangers in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

The Penguins won't know the answer to that question until at least tonight -- the Rangers have a 3-2 lead going into Game 6 in Philadelphia -- but when they gave up three goals in the span of four minutes, 52 seconds, the possibility there would be a Game 7 Wednesday at Consol Energy Center became very real.

After all, the Penguins had squandered leads of two and three goals in their two losses to the Blue Jackets, and, as regulation was winding down, it was far from certain that they could make a four-goal cushion stand up.

"It was tougher than it should have been," center Sidney Crosby said. "It wasn't easy, seeing 1-2-3 go in like that."

Neither was seeing two of their centers leave the game with injuries of unknown severity.

Brandon Sutter, who had an excellent series while alternating between the second and third lines, left the game in the middle of the second period and had to be helped to the locker room after a run-in with Columbus winger Nick Foligno near the left-wing boards.

Although Foligno appeared to get his stick between Sutter's legs and Sutter went into the boards, it was unclear that he was injured in that sequence. Sutter returned to the bench during the third period, but did not get back on the ice.

The Penguins also lost Joe Vitale after a knee-on-knee collision with Blake Comeau early in the third.

Coach Dan Bylsma said after the game that he did not have an injury update.

The flight home was delayed several hours by an issue with their plane, which gave them plenty of time to contemplate all that had gone wrong -- and right -- in the series-clincher.

The Blue Jackets' late-game surge stole some of the spotlight that had been claimed earlier by Malkin who, like Crosby, had failed to get a goal in his previous nine playoff games.

Those two were, for the second game in a row, linemates for most of the night, and finally had the offensive impact that had been expected of them for so long.

"We understand that we need to score," Malkin said.

He broke his nine-game dry spell at 9:11 of the first period, taking a pass from Chris Kunitz and beating Columbus goalie Sergei Bobrovsky from the inner edge of the right circle.

At 13:13, Malkin took a feed from Crosby and snapped the puck past Bobrovsky for his second in four minutes, two seconds.

Columbus had a chance to get back into the game when it got a power play late in the first, but shortly after that man-advantage ended, the Blue Jackets' season seemed to do the same.

The Penguins had just returned to full strength when Sutter swiped the puck from defenseman James Wisniewski at the Penguins' blue line. He had a two-on-zero break with Lee Stempniak, who had just left the penalty box, but didn't even fake a pass before flipping a backhander by Bobrovsky at 34 seconds to put the Penguins up by three.

Malkin added what seemed like nothing more than an exclamation point -- and completed his hat trick -- at 15:22 when he capped a two-on-one by beating Bobrovsky from the left hash mark.

But the Blue Jackets got third-period goals from Fedor Tyutin, Artem Anisimov and Foligno to trigger three loud reports from Nationwide Arena's live-in artillery piece. And to create some very real suspense about the outcome.

The Penguins ultimately survived, however, and much of the talk afterward in their locker room was of Malkin's hat trick. That wasn't Malkin's preferred topic of conversation, though.

"More important, we win the game" he said. "And the series is done."


Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com and Twitter @MolinariPG. First Published April 28, 2014 9:51 PM

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