Ron Cook: Pressure in series now shifts to Penguins' Fleury



COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury talked a brave game Wednesday night only minutes after giving up a late tying goal and then the winning overtime goal in a crushing 4-3 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets in Game 4 of their first-round Stanley Cup playoff series. By allowing those killer goals, not to mention blowing a 3-0 first-period lead, the Penguins wasted a chance to take a 3-1 lead in the series and all but eliminate Columbus. Instead, they come home for Game 5 Saturday night tied, 2-2, with all the pressure on their shoulders.

On Fleury's shoulders, really.

"You put it behind you and move on and get ready for the next one," Fleury said. "It's 2-2. We're all right. Go home and relax and get ready for the next one."

Fleury's body language told a much different story. By Saturday night, he might be just fine, raring to go. But it was clear looking at him alone at his locker after his media scrum -- half his face buried in his T-shirt and his hands -- that it's going to be a rough couple of days.

"I do," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said, simply, when asked if he expects Fleury to play a strong game Saturday night and be good the rest of the series.

Bylsma's job and Fleury's future with the Penguins might depend on it.

The sad part for all in the Penguins' room is that Fleury played really well Wednesday night before the late meltdown. He had been superb the entire series.

"It was good," he said of Game 4. "They had 40 shots and two goals ... "

Then, in the blink of an eye, the Blue Jackets had two more goals.

One of the reasons Tom Barrasso is the best goaltender in Penguins history was his ability to handle the puck. He was like having a third defenseman on the ice. He could get the puck to one of the team's forwards or even clear the zone with one flick of his goaltender's stick.

But Fleury?

Let's just say that's not his strength.

More often than not, it's an adventure when Fleury goes into the trapezoid behind his net to play the puck. So it was in Game 4 as the Penguins desperately tried to hang on to a 3-2 lead. The puck jumped over Fleury's stick and went to the Blue Jackets' Ryan Johansen, who quickly made the perfect pass to teammate Brandon Dubinsky for an easy tap-in goal with 22.5 seconds left. Fleury couldn't recover in time to get back in his net.

"It ended up being a mistake," Bylsma said. "If the puck is flat, he makes the play. But it never stopped bouncing ... [Fleury] ends up leaving an empty cage."

Suddenly, the Blue Jackets were headed to an overtime that they were thrilled to play. The mood in the Penguins' locker room was just the opposite. They weren't happy, not just about blowing that late lead, but about wasting that 3-0 start. The Blue Jackets got a power-play goal late in the first period to make it, 3-1, when Mark Letestu's shot deflected off teammate Boone Jenner's body past Fleury. They made it, 3-2, in the second period on Johansen's 5-on-3 power-play goal. The Penguins took three penalties in that period, one a double-minor on Lee Stempniak for high-sticking.

It's pretty hard to blow a 3-0 lead in a playoff game, but darned if the Penguins didn't find a way.

The winning goal by Nick Foligno at 2:49 of overtime seemed fairly predictable. He fired what appeared to be a harmless shot from just inside the blue line, but, somehow, it danced by Fleury as the delirious fans at Nationwide Arena drowned out even the annoying cannon they shoot off after every Blue Jackets goal.

"The puck just seemed to knuckle," Fleury said. "It seemed to go down."

Where it ended up was in the back of the Penguins' net. Just like that, the Blue Jackets had new, unexpected life, a dangerous underdog that has been allowed to hang around to play what now is a best-of-three-game series. The Penguins, meanwhile, were left to try to figure out what the heck happened and try to regroup.

That's especially true of Fleury, but he won't be the only one under pressure Saturday night. Superstar Sidney Crosby didn't have a point in Game 4, doesn't have a goal in the series and now has gone nine playoff games without a goal going back to the Ottawa series last season. Superstar Evgeni Malkin had a second assist on the Penguins' third goal Wednesday night but still hasn't scored one of his own against the Blue Jackets. He now has gone eight playoff games in a row without a goal.

Saturday night might be a nice time for Crosby and Malkin to do something to help Fleury out.

Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Cook and Poni" show weekdays from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.


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