After the game, he was lamenting the fact he didn’t get what looked like an easy empty-net goal with a little less than two minutes left in regulation, but Sidney Crosby didn’t need to score to help the Pittsburgh Penguins put the Columbus Blue Jackets on the brink of elimination in their opening-round series of the NHL playoffs with a 3-1 victory.
The Penguins captain paced his team to its most well-rounded performance of the postseason Saturday night and gave Pittsburgh a chance to wrap it up Monday in Columbus, Ohio, in Game 6 and move onto the second round against the winner of the New York Rangers vs. Philadelphia Flyers series.
Traditionally not one to tinker with his lines too much, Pens head coach Dan Bylsma went with a star-studded top trio of Crosby, regular linemate Chris Kunitz and fellow superstar Evgeni Malkin.
The all-eggs-in-one-basket line sparked the Penguins to a 51-shot performance—contributing 15 of them and attempting 25 in total at a weary Sergei Bobrovsky. From the midway point of the first period, the Blue Jackets were overwhelmed. The Pens didn’t dominate on the scoresheet, thanks largely to the play of the Columbus goaltender, but they completely controlled the play to regain control of the series.
“I thought I had a pretty clear shot at (the open net). Tough to miss an easy one like that,” Crosby told Cassie Campbell on CBC’s postgame broadcast.
With all the talk about how little an impact the Penguins stars have had to that point in the series, Saturday was a spectacular sign that the series favorites are trending in the right direction.
Campbell alluded to that skepticism with a somewhat vague question about Crosby's health, asking about confidence in his body. He didn’t hesitate with his response.
“I’m confident. I think you just have to go out there and keep competing and trust that it’s going to go in,” Crosby said. “But there’s more to the game than scoring goals. It’s easy to say when you’re not scoring. You want to produce..."
His words trailed off, but his play did no such thing. On Kunitz’s goal on a power play in the second period with the Pens trailing, Crosby’s shot gave Bobrovsky trouble, and Kunitz had a couple of cracks at the rebound.
The Penguins never looked back, and it seems as if the Blue Jackets rarely had the puck after that. The numbers on ExtraSkater.com supported that, with the Pens earning a 63 percent five-on-five Corsi rating—higher than the top averages in the playoffs so far.
Knowing his team needed some sort of spark after the Marc-Andre Fleury gaffe in Game 4 led to a late game-tying goal and ultimately a tied series, Bylsma decided to pair his highest-paid superstars together in order to take back momentum.
It worked out well. Not only did the stars look solid, contributing a goal and two assists, but the confidence and aggression seemed to trickle down to the other lines as well. Hence, the series-high 51 shots.
Even Fleury got a boost of confidence from the crucial victory, stopping 23 of 24 shots on the night and getting some love from a home crowd that was willing to forgive and forget his past mistakes.
Fleury on fan chants: A good boost of confidence- get goosebumps when you’re in there. Very happy we were able to get a win at home tonight.— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) April 27, 2014
23 saves for Marc-Andre Fleury in the win - that's a big bounce-back win for him.— Craig Custance (@CraigCustance) April 27, 2014
It was the perfect mix for Game 5, but it may not work as well in Game 6 when the Blue Jackets hit home ice again.
At least that’s the hope of head coach Todd Richards, who talked in his scrum after the game about the wrinkle of Crosby and Malkin on the same line on the NHL Network.
“It will be something we’ll talk about,” Richards said. “I could be wrong, but it looked like (Bylsma) was trying to keep (Crosby) away from (Brandon) Dubinsky. He was following that line right afterwards. When we go home, I have last change, so it’s something I can possibly control a little bit better. It makes for something different when you have 87 and 71 together.”
The Blue Jackets will be tough to eliminate on home ice Monday, but for maybe the first time in the series, the Penguins actually appear capable of doing it.
All stats from NHL.com unless otherwise noted.