Columbus' Markus Nutivaara, center, scores in the second period Tuesday against the Penguins.
By Ron Cook / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
COLUMBUS, Ohio — You might have heard something over the years about how the late, great Badger Bob Johnson lived his life, how he always made it a great day for hockey. He found a positive even after the toughest of playoff defeats or the worst of performances.
“Boys, you can lose three games and still win the series,” he would tell his Penguins.
Remember Badger’s words this morning.
This is no time to worry.
The Penguins are going to be fine even if their 5-4 loss to Columbus in Game 4 Tuesday night qualified for that worst-performance category.
It would have been nice if the Penguins had wrapped up the first-round series with a sweep if only because it would have meant more time to rest and heal before the next round against Washington or Toronto. But it was unrealistic to expect four consecutive wins. Columbus is a proud team, a 108-point team in the regular season. It wasn’t going to go quietly into the off-season even if it had to play without its best player, defenseman Zach Werenski, who was lost for the rest of the playoffs after a gruesome facial injury in Game 3.
The Penguins didn’t match the Blue Jackets’ intensity and desperation, didn’t come close, actually. They were horrible again in the first period. Marc-Andre Fleury wasn’t at his best. His teammates gave him very little help, allowing 34 shots on goal, many of them high-quality. Sidney Crosby and linemates Jake Guentzel and Conor Sheary —the best line in hockey through the early portion of these playoffs — were a combined minus-7 and finished with just one point, Guentzel’s cosmetic goal with 27.6 seconds left.
But it’s just one loss.
It was a delay of the inevitable, not a denial.
I expect the Penguins will close out the Blue Jackets Thursday night at PPG Paints Arena.
“We’ve got to go home and win a hockey game,” an unhappy Mike Sullivan said, biting off his words. “That’s going to be our approach. We’ve got a confident group. We believe in this group. But we’ve got to be more committed to playing the game the right way.”
I get Sullivan’s frustration after the loss.
“We just weren’t good enough. We weren’t committed to playing the game the right way. We weren’t committed like our team usually is. I know we’re better. I know we will be better. But we certainly weren’t good enough tonight.”
I also get the disappointment that was evident in the Penguins’ room.
“We were not pleased with the effort we put out tonight,” Matt Cullen said. “We didn’t have the start we wanted. We didn’t play the game that we wanted.”
The start was horrible again. For the fourth consecutive game, the Penguins were outshot in the first period, 14-6. That makes the four-game, first-period total 56-27 in favor of the Blue Jackets. They led, 3-1, after the first period in Game 3, but the Penguins fought back to win, 5-4, in overtime. Columbus led, 2-0, after one period in Game 4, but there was no comeback this time.
“We haven’t been as good as we would have liked,” Cullen said. “This is a team, Columbus, that comes out pretty hard. That’s sort of their hallmark. I don’t think we’ve done a good enough job handling that and attempting to dictate that ourselves.”
Another slow start contributed significantly to Sullivan’s angst.
“We certainly talked about it before the game. Being ready.”
If you were waiting for the Crosby line to bring the Penguins back, as it did in Game 3, you were disappointed.
“I don’t think they had the same jump they normally have for whatever reason,” Sullivan said.
But that wasn’t Sullivan’s biggest problem.
Many will blame Fleury, who allowed the five goals after giving up four in Game 3. The Columbus crowd had a good time at his expense, derisively chanting “Fleur-ry! Fleur-ry!” That just doesn’t have the same meaning that it does at PPG Paints Arena.
But Cullen and Sullivan know the truth.
“We played pretty loose,” Cullen said.
“We’ve got to be harder to play against,” Sullivan said. “We’ve got to make them work for scoring chances …
“It’s hard to score your way through the playoffs. You’ve got to play the game the right way. You’ve got to defend. You’ve got to make good decisions. I don’t think our team was as committed as we are accustomed to.”
Say it one more time: It was just one game.
It was up to Cullen to play the Badger role.
“It was sort of a good check-up for us. We have to reset things and get back to playing the game we need to play. With urgency. They don’t just give you four wins. We know that. That’s a little disappointing with what we threw out there tonight. This is the nature of the playoffs. We have to manage it. We know we didn’t play as well as we needed to or as well as we know we can.”
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