Ron Cook: Extension of 'battle level' key to clinching series

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Seemed like everyone in the Pittsburgh area had an opinion on the Penguins after their hurtful overtime playoff loss in Game 4 to the Columbus Blue Jackets, from coach Dan Bylsma to devoted radio talk-show caller John in Robinson. None was flattering.

"The series was tied, 2-2, but, to listen to the outside voices, it was like we were down, 3-1, and they were outplaying us completely," Penguins defenseman Rob Scuderi was saying late Saturday night.

"I thought our response as a team was good. I thought we passed a lot of tests in this game with flying colors."

This was after the Penguins' 3-1 win in Game 5, which put them in position to wrap up this first-round series tonight in Game 6 at Nationwide Arena. Their "battle level" was much better, good enough to please Bylsma -- hardly an outside voice -- who had criticized their effort after Game 4. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury was terrific from start to finish this time, presumably good enough to satisfy his noted critic, John in Robinson. Fleury had mishandled a puck behind his net late in regulation of Game 4, leading to the Blue Jackets' tying goal by Brandon Dubinsky with 22.5 seconds left. They went on to win, 4-3, when Nick Foligno beat Fleury for a bad goal 2:49 into overtime.

"Everything you heard, that loss was all on him," Penguins defenseman Paul Martin said of Fleury. "Everyone in our room knows that wasn't the case. Everyone in here has complete trust in him. We know that if he doesn't stand on his head that whole game, he's not in that position at the end."

Clearly, the Penguins rallied around Fleury in Game 5. They can't play better team defense. It wasn't just the defensemen, who played without injured leader Brooks Orpik. It was the forwards, who forechecked like mad men.

"We spent a lot of time in their zone," Martin said.

The Penguins had 51 shots. The Blue Jackets managed just 24, three in the final 13½ minutes after the Penguins' Jussi Jokinen had scored to break a 1-1 tie. That was hardly a surprise. The Penguins were just as good in the third period of Game 4, trying to protect a 3-2 lead. At one point in that period, Columbus went nearly 9½ minutes without a shot.

"I thought we played really well [in Game 4] and clamped down on them," Scuderi said. "We didn't get the result we necessarily wanted because of an unfortunate bounce. It would have been easy to be real down after that, but we didn't allow that to happen. That all started with Marc, who played a fantastic game ...

"We were able to be aggressive without being stupid. You work so hard to get the puck into the offensive zone. Just because you have the lead doesn't mean you have to sit on it. You can continue to forecheck. I thought we did an excellent job of that.

"It's easy when everyone is doing their basic responsibility. We're not asking everyone to be great. We're just asking everyone to be good and to be in their right spots."

Martin, who usually is paired with Orpik, is the Penguins' best defenseman and was strong again in Game 5, playing in every important spot. The much-criticized Kris Letang jumped into Orpik's spot next to Martin and played his best game of the series, Bylsma said. Bylsma also had high praise for the pairing of Matt Niskanen and Olli Maata, and for Robert Bortuzzo, who played in his first playoff game and was paired with Scuderi.

"I thought [Bortuzzo] played fantastic," Scuderi said. "He brings a lot of energy. He's a physical guy and a vocal guy. It was sad to be without Brooks because he's so important to what we do, but I think I can speak for every guy in here when I say we were pretty happy to have [Bortuzzo] step in."

Letang scored an empty-net goal with 1:01 left to ice the win, although it didn't feel like it the way the teams have blown 3-1 leads in the series. Niskanen had an assist on the Penguins' first goal by Chris Kunitz, a power-play goal. That means the team's defensemen have combined for four goals and 15 assists in the five games. Martin led all NHL defensemen with eight points going into Sunday's games and Niskanen ranked second with six.

"It's nothing fancy," Martin said. "We're just getting pucks on net, getting people in front for deflections or rebounds. Matt has been great at doing it all year."

Martin and Niskanen have more points than Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. If Crosby and Malkin, who have gone 10 and nine playoff games without a goal, had played as well against Columbus as Fleury and the defensemen, the Penguins would have won the series in a sweep.

"We can always play better," Martin said.

I'm not so sure.

It's hard to imagine a better defensive game than the one the Penguins played in Game 5. The guess here is Bylsma will settle for another effort just like it tonight. I won't presume to speak for John in Robinson. I'm sure he'll have his say soon enough.

Ron Cook: Ron Cook can be heard on the "Cook and Poni" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.

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