If you were just a casual hockey fan coming into the series between Pittsburgh and Columbus, the first four games of the series have to have you hooked. This series has been the ultimate back-and-forth series so far, and both teams can have justified claims that they should have already swept the series.
In more ways than one has been the "first to four wins" series. Not only do teams need to get to four wins to win the series, but all four games so far in this series have been decided by a 4-3 score. If your team gets to a two-goal lead in a game this series, run and hide because so far all those big leads haven't resulted in a win.
The scene shifted to Columbus on Monday night with the series tied a 1-1, and Nationwide Arena was ready to welcome the Blue Jackets back home after they secured their first playoff win in franchise history on Saturday night in Pittsburgh. Ever since the overtime win, Columbus was buzzing with Blue Jackets fever. With tickets going quick after the Blue Jackets clinched a playoff spot, fans were lining up early to possibly get their hands on the limited AEP Green Seats that were released just two hours before the game. The only thing that seemed to go wrong in the lead-up to Monday night's game is the news that defenseman Fedor Tyutin would be scratched due to a injury he suffered in Saturday night's game. Defenseman Dalton Prout was called on to take Tyutin's spot in the lineup for Game 3.
19,148 fans packed Nationwide Arena and they didn't have to wait long for a reason to get unbelievably loud on Monday night. With just 1:38 gone in the first period, Boone Jenner buried his first career playoff goal off assists from Jack Skille and Ryan Johansen to put the Blue Jackets up 1-0. Fans were still going wild in celebrating the goal when Jack Johnson tallied his third goal in three games just 1:40 after Jenner's goal.
After the hot start, things settled down on the scoring sheet as the teams didn't light the lamp until late in the second period. While there wasn't any scoring, the action was still hot on the ice, including a couple of soft penalties being called on Columbus to the dismay of the home crowd. The most egregious call might have came when Nick Foligno was called for unsportsmanlike conduct at the 15:17 mark of the second period for giving Marc-Andre Fleury a "snow shower", which in reality was only a couple of flurries.
One of the problems this year for Columbus has been their tendency to let in goals late in periods, and that issue reared its ugly head on Monday night at the end of the second period. With just two seconds to go in the period, Brooks Orpik beat Sergei Bobrovskywith a wrister to pull Pittsburgh to within a goal after two periods.
Columbus looked to have taken the punch of that late Orpik goal and countered in stunning fashion when Cam Atkinson put the puck by Fleury to give the Blue Jacketsthe dreaded 3-1 lead. At the time the Blue Jackets looked well on their way to a 2-1 series lead, but their youth started to show while the playoff experience of the Penguinstook over.
At the 5:53 mark of the third period, Brandon Sutter netted his second goal in three games to cut the deficit to 3-2 as the puck took a deflection to beat Bobrovsky. Then just over a minute later Lee Stempniak got on the scoreboard on a goal off helpers fromChris Kunitz and Sidney Crosby to tie the game up at three.
The final entry on the goal-scoring summary would come just 63 seconds later whenJussi Jokinen was credited with a goal off a deflection to give Pittsburgh three goals in just 2:13 and a 4-3 lead. The Blue Jackets tried to tie up the game the rest of the period, but overtime just wasn't in the cards on Monday night and Pittsburgh took back home-ice advantage with a 4-3 win.
After Monday's performance the Blue Jackets didn't have much time to feel sorry for themselves since Game 4 was scheduled for Wednesday night at Nationwide Arena. The energy throughout Columbus was just as high as it was on Monday in anticipation of the Blue Jackets possibly tying the series up and ensuring that the series would be extended so there was another playoff game in Columbus next week.
Much like before Monday's game, Columbus was dealt another blow to their defensive rotation when Ryan Murray was ruled out for the game after being hit in the skate by a puck in practice. With Dalton Prout already called on to replace the injured Fedor Tyutin,Nick Schultz was tabbed to replace the injured Murray.
That is where the early similarities to Game 3 and 4 ended, as Pittsburgh took just 6:09 to get on the scoreboard first. With Jussi Jokinen having been sent to the penalty box for a hooking call 11 seconds early, Craig Adams notched another shorthanded goal from the Penguins to quiet the Blue Jackets faithful.
Pittsburgh used special teams to extend their lead just over four minutes later when Chris Kunitz put home a power play goal. The Blue Jackets gave the Penguins a man-advantage when Derek MacKenzie was called for hooking, and just four seconds into the power play Kunitz scored his first goal of the series.
The Penguins added to what looked like an insurmountable lead at the time whenJames Neal made the score 3-0 with a goal just 33 seconds after the power play goal from Kunitz. With a three-goal lead Pittsburgh had Columbus and Bobrovsky on the ropes, and seemed to be destined to head back to Pittsburgh with a 3-1 lead and a chance to close out the series in Game 5.
With over four minutes to go in the first period the Blue Jackets looked to capitalize on a power play of their own, when Neal was sent to the penalty box for an intereference call. Columbus needed just over a minute to strike a little fear in the Penguins when Boone Jenner scored his second goal in as many games. With that the scoreline sat at 3-1 and we all know how that has worked out for teams in this series.
After the strong start to the game by Pittsburgh, the rest of the game was controlled by Columbus. Throughout the second period Columbus was knocking at the door, and were gifted a 5-on-3 when first Lee Stempniak was given a four minute double-minor for high sticking at the 11:53 mark, followed by Brandon Sutter getting a delay of game penalty for shooting the puck out of play at the 13:36 mark. Columbus wasted little time in capitalizing on that when Ryan Johansen scored his second goal of the series to cut the lead to just 3-2.
The Blue Jackets came out firing early in the third period, peppering Fleury with shots, but they just weren't able to get one past the goalie. Then a lull in the offensive action game, with Columbus failing to register a shot for over a 10-minute stretch. Add into that the issues had with getting an opportunity to pull Sergei Bobrovsky from goalie to get an extra skater on the ice. All those issues were erased when Fleury inexplicably came out of his net to play the puck with just under 30 seconds to go, and the Blue Jackets intercepted the puck and Brandon Dubinsky just about blew the lid off of Nationwide Arena with his game tying goal.
Overtime started with a couple shots from long-range on Fleury, with the Pittsburgh goaltender looking rattled after his blundering play late in the game. The Blue Jackets had the right idea in putting anything and everything on net, and it paid of when Nick Foligno took a 65-foot wrister than snuck under Fleury's glove to cap a incredible comeback in Columbus.
The goal was setup by a tremendous effort from former Buckeye R.J. Umberger in blocking a shot to start the break. This came after Umberger was hit by a puck in the eye midway through the third period, which left him with a noticeable cut under his left eye.
It has been eerie just how similar not only Games 1 & 3 were but also how similar Games 2 & 4 were. In Games 1 & 3 Columbus jumped out to a two-goal lead only to have a Pittsburgh flurry of goals put the scoreline in the favor of the Penguins. Games 2 & 4 have seen Pittsburgh take control early but comebacks by Columbus have resulted in overtime wins for the Blue Jackets. Maybe we should call the city Comebacklus?
While the goaltending by Sergei Bobrovsky has been shaky at times, he came up huge in Games 2 & 4 to keep Pittsburgh from extending the lead any farther and putting the game out of reach for these miraculous Blue Jacket recoveries. Pittsburgh's opposite number hasn't been much better, and it will be curious to see just how much that Game 4 meltdown effects the veteran goaltender.
After accounting for only 20 shots in Game 3, it was a good to see the Blue Jackets step up their offensive pressure and put 46 shots on goal in Game 4. It was almost like the stat sheet was reversed from Game 3 to Game 4, with Pittsburgh tallying 41 shots in Game 3 compared to only 25 in Game 4. The one constant throughout the series has been the hitting that Columbus has done. In Game 3 the Blue Jackets were credited with 65 hits to only 32 for Pittsburgh. In Game 4 the gap narrowed, but Columbus still had 51 hits to only 37 for the Penguins.
Another thing that the Blue Jackets are doing right is how they are keeping Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin from scoring. With their goalless performances so far in the series, Crosby has now failed to score in nine straight playoff games, while Malkin has been scoreless in eight straight. If the Blue Jackets have any designs on winning the series, they'll have to continue to lockdown on the two Pittsburgh stars.
While fan favorites have been born in this playoff run, the real star the last two games has been The 5th Line. The crowd at Nationwide Arena has been unbelievable, and getting them at least one more game in Columbus in these playoffs is a much-deserved reward. Just seeing the crowd on their feet and creating the type of noise they did throughout the comeback on Wednesday night was enough to send chills through those that weren't lucky enough to be at Nationwide. While there have been jokes in the past about attendance at Blue Jackets games, it is quite a sight to see the people of Columbus and surrounding areas show up and support a team that is only going to get better heading forward. This series looks like it is going to come down to the wire, so if you haven't yet jumped on the Blue Jackets bandwagon there is still time. The 5th Line is growing so help the Blue Jackets #BattleOn if you haven't already.