Two games into their Eastern Conference first round matchup with the Pittsburgh Penguins, and the Columbus Blue Jackets are knocking franchise firsts off the list at a rate that has Blue Jacket fans giddy for Monday night's Game 3 at Nationwide Arena. The first two games of the series have been playoff hockey at its finest, with a lengthy series looking to be on tap between the two teams.
Wednesday night saw the series open up in front of 18,646 hockey fans at the CONSOL Energy Center, and many of those fans were silenced early when Jack Johnson scored 6:20 in the first period to give Columbus their first ever playoff lead in their fifth playoff game in franchise history. The former University of Michigan blueliner charged toward the net and found himself on the receiving end of a nifty pass from Brandon Dubinsky to bury the shot past Marc-André Fleury.
The young Blue Jackets would hold that advantage for most of the first period before they fell victim to a Fedor Tyutin turnover. Jussi Jokinen dispossessed Tyutin, and was eventually rewarded for his hard work when he put the puck past Sergei Bobrovsky off helpers from Evgeni Malkin and Olli Maatta.
Columbus responded quickly after a Rob Scuderi penalty for interference put the Blue Jackets on the power play. Mark Letestu scored just 45 seconds of assists from Jack Johnson and Boone Jenner after Jokinen tied the score up. The teams would go into the first intermission with Columbus holding a 2-1 lead, but Pittsburgh was boosted as they were on the power play after a Blake Comeau cross checking penalty.
The Penguins came into the playoffs with the best power play in the NHL, and they would show why, but not before a show of skill by Columbus. Just 43 seconds into the second period Derek MacKenzie forced a turnover and was able to find himself with a breakaway that he turned into a shorthanded goal to put Columbus up 3-1.
As quickly as Columbus found themselves with a two-goal lead, Pittsburgh erased it via their aforementioned power play. Beau Bennett struck first less than a minute after the Mackenzie goal with Comeau still in the penalty box. Less than a minute after Bennett's goal Pittsburgh found themselves with the man-advantage again due to a Jack Johnson interference penalty, and Matt Niskanen tallied a goal just 10 seconds into the power play to even the score at three.
The teams went into the third period tied at three, but the deadlock was broken by a Brent Sutter goal 8:18 into the third period. Columbus was able to keep Pittsburgh from adding to their lead, but wasn't able to force overtime, even after pulling Bobrovsky late in the game to gain the extra skater. The loss was the fifth in a row for Columbus in the playoffs, but the fight the Blue Jackets showed gave fans a source of optimism going forward. The most telling stat from the first game for Columbus was how much more physical they were than the Penguins, registering 48 hits to just 27 for Pittsburgh.
With it only being a short trip to Pittsburgh from Columbus, the Blue Jackets returned to the capital city in between games to plan on how they would try and top the Penguins in Game 2. Hopes for the Blue Jackets were boosted when former Buckeye, and Pittsburgh native, R.J. Umberger was announced fit to join the battle for the Saturday night tilt after missing Game 1 due to injury. While Umberger was healthy enough to play, Nick Foligno was scratched again while dealing with a lower body injury.
The start of Game 2 was less than ideal for Columbus, with Pittsburgh slipping two shots past Sergei Bobrovsky in the first 4:24 of the first period. Brian Gibbons scored 3:30 into the game, and then added a second less than a minute later while Pittsburgh was shorthanded due to a Joe Vitale penalty for goalkeeper interference.
Much like in Game 1 when Columbus scored shorthanded and Pittsburgh cancelled out that goal with a power play goal during the same penalty, the Blue Jackets were able to reverse those roles in Game 2. Leading goal-getter during the regular season Ryan Johansen put Columbus on the board with his first playoff goal less than a minute after Gibbons' second goal to close the gap to 2-1.
The lead for Pittsburgh would balloon back to two goals when Matt Niskanen would net his second power play in as many games against Columbus 17:52 in the first period. The teams hit their dressing rooms with Pittsburgh holding a 3-1 lead after 20 minutes and the Penguins looked to be firmly in control of the series.
The second period saw the momentum shift, as even though the Penguins had a two-goal lead Columbus had started to create some more pressure in the offensive end. What was discouraging for fans was the silly penalties that the Blue Jackets were committing. Luckily the Penguins weren't able to capitalize on the advantages they were given, and for the second game in a row Columbus netted a shorthanded goal when Matt Calvert rifled a shot past Fleury 7:31 into the second period to cut the deficit in half.
The score remained unchanged until Kris Letang was sent to the penalty box for interference in the last half of the third period. Trailing by a goal this was the perfect opportunity for Columbus to make things level, and they did 13:59 into the third by a power play goal from Jack Johnson. The defenseman scored his second goal in two games, leading to the first playoff overtime game in franchise history for Columbus.
Overtime hockey is one of the best things in sports, unless you are a fan of one of the teams involved. With a sudden death format and no TV timeouts, they littlest mistake can decide the game for a team, or in some cases end a series. After 20 minutes of scoreless hockey, Blue Jackets fans were already on edge, but they were rewarded not long into the second overtime. Just 1:10 into the second overtime Matt Calvert was rewarded for his resiliency, rebounding a Cam Atkinson shot, and while Fleury stopped Calvert's first shot, he couldn't stop Calvert twice. The second goal of the game ended the 13+ year playoff victory drought, and the first playoff win in team history was celebrated by a victory pile on the ice.
As was the case with the first game, Columbus was able to put the body to the Penguins at a high rate, out-hitting Pittsburgh 51-28. While those hits might not seem that big at first, over a possible six or seven games those hits could wear down Pittsburgh not only physically, but also mentally. Some wear has been shown by both teams already, with Brian Gibbons leaving Saturday's game in the first period after a collision with Ryan Johansen, and Fedor Tyutin missing the third period and overtimes for Columbus due to an undisclosed injury.
Another good sign for Columbus is how they've been able to find holes against Marc-André Fleury. While Fleury did lead Pittsburgh to the 2009 Stanley Cup, his play over the last two playoffs has been spotty at best. During the 2012 playoffs, Fleury was rocked by Philadelphia in six games, sporting a 4.63 goals against average. Last year wasn't much better for Fleury, as he had a 3.52 GAA, this time in only five games. Fleury played in four games against the New York Islanders in the first round before being replaced by Thomas Vokoun for the majority of the rest of Pittsburgh's run to the Eastern Conference Finals. The more pressure the Blue Jackets can put on Fleury, the sooner you might see him really meltdown.
Now comes what Columbus fans have been really waiting for since their brief first trip to the playoffs back in 2009. The series shifts to Columbus on Monday and Wednesday night, and there is no doubt that Nationwide Arena will be louder than it has ever been when the teams take the ice. The difference from 2009 is that the Blue Jackets finally have that elusive first playoff game win, which should only add fuel to the fire of the fans at Nationwide. Also Columbus has gotten the stigma off not being able to beat Pittsburgh this year off their back, which hopefully will add to the momentum that the Blue Jackets have built in the first two games of the series.
Whether you are headed down to Nationwide Arena to attend Games 3 and/or 4, or watching elsewhere, the scenes these next two games are going to be like no other. Fans of Columbus are getting just a small taste of how great playoff hockey is, and the Blue Jackets are giving their all trying to make sure Columbus supporters get a deeper run this year.