It was always lurking, and even Marc-Andre Fleury’s staunchest supporters knew that one of his famous postseason meltdowns -- which can rip the heart out of a hockey team -- could come at any time.
But no one expected this!
A bad goal, yes. But not a gigantic mental blunder of historic proportions with victory -- and a 3-1 lead in the series -- just seconds away.
But that’s what Fleury did and his costly gaffe, followed, as might be expected, by a bad goal, sent the Penguins to a 4-3 overtime loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets Wednesday night and sent them reeling back to Pittsburgh for Game 5 Saturday.
With about 30 seconds remaining in regulation and the Penguins leading, 3-2, Fleury left his crease to retrieve a puck behind the net that had been dumped in by the Blue Jackets. It can be debated whether in that circumstance he should have left the net. A wiser course of action might have been to allow a defenseman to retrieve the puck. But once he left his goal unprotected, he had to be absolutely certain he corralled the puck. He failed to do so.
The puck jumped over Fleury’s stick and into the possession of Ryan Johansen. The rest was easy. Johansen fed the puck to Brandon Dubinsky, who had an open net in which to shoot. Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz tried valiantly to protect the goal, but they had no chance. Johansen easily poked home the score.
The residue of that blunder did not go away.
Less than three minutes into overtime, Nick Foligno brought the puck across the blue line, wound up and shot from beyond the top of the circle. There was no traffic in front of Fleury. There was no one to tip the puck, no one to screen the goalie. Fleury should have seen it all the way. Still, it got past his glove hand. Columbus had a victory, one that is historic for its franchise.
It was the fourth straight 4-3 win in the series.
It was the fourth straight game in which the team that scored first lost.
It was the fourth straight game in which the team that had a 3-1 lead lost.
And it was -- more incredibly -- the ninth straight playoff game in which Sidney Crosby did not score and it was the eighth straight game in which Evgeni Malkin did not score. Malkin did not even have a shot. The performances of Crosby and Malkin, widely hailed as the two best players in the world, in such games of importance is almost inexplicable.
Nor should the poor play of his team mean coach Dan Bylsma is excused. He is not. The failure of the Penguins to stay on top of their game and work for three periods to ensure victory reflects horribly on Bylsma. So does the fact the Penguins have played hard only in spurts during this series.
The Penguins led, 3-0, before the game was 12 minutes old and an easy victory loomed. So easy, in fact, the Penguins presumably thought the game was over. It was not. Boone Jenner scored at 16:39 of the first period to put the Blue Jackets back in the game. From that point until the end of regulation, Columbus outshot the Penguins, 31-13.
Concerning the next game, Bylsma said, ''Saturday is essentially Game 1. We need everyone on board.’’
You have to wonder if Fleury is capable of that.