Welcome to the playoffs, Evgeni Malkin.
And welcome to the second round, Pittsburgh Penguins.
Those two sentiments might not be mutually exclusive, but the second wouldn't have happened without the first. With Malkin springing to life with a hat trick to pace the Penguins to a nail-biter of a 4-3 win in Game 6 of the Penguins’ first-round NHL playoff matchup, the upstart Columbus Blue Jackets’ hopes of advancing to Round 2 for the first time in franchise history were finally snuffed out.
It wasn’t easy—not in the least.
The final game of the series summed up the six-game set perfectly. The Penguins were the more talented team, but the relentless Blue Jackets refused to quit until the season officially expired.
It came down to the final seconds despite the massive advantage provided by three Pens goals from Malkin and another from Brandon Sutter before the second intermission.
The third period was increasingly tense, as Fedor Tyutin snapped what looked like a possible Marc-Andre Fleury shutout midway through the frame with a short-handed goal. Five minutes later, the Blue Jackets were within a single goal of tying it up when Artem Anisimov and Nick Foligno took advantage of a stunned Penguins squad sitting back on its substantial lead and failing miserably at playing prevent defense.
Asked by NBC’s Pierre McGuire on the postgame show about whether or not the Penguins expected it to be this hard to finish the Blue Jackets, Sidney Crosby was honest.
“No. We got in trouble,” said Crosby with a bit of a laugh. “We sat back and they fed off some momentum. It’s nice to be moving on, but hopefully we make it easier on ourselves next time.”
For the Penguins, maybe it’s a big lesson learned early on in these playoffs. As quickly as they can turn on the star power, a game or series can be flipped if the effort isn’t there.
“We need to play all 60 minutes,” Malkin told CBC’s Cassie Campbell after the game. “It’s playoffs.”
His English isn’t great, but the message seems to have gotten across.
The Penguins, according to that same Malkin interview, had a meeting after the Game 4 loss in Columbus to reinforce that point. Head coach Dan Bylsma then decided to pair Crosby and Malkin together to make it more difficult for Brandon Dubinsky and the Blue Jackets to shut down the high-powered offense.
It worked. The last two games—comeback attempt aside—were the Penguins’ best of the series and bode well for them in the second round.
Having Malkin content and confident and Crosby making plays to set up the sniper is a recipe for success.
“Today, it’s my day. Every shot was going in,” Malkin told Campbell. “I’m so happy I scored today and we get to go to the second round. The last two games we played so much better. The last two wins, I think it was so important for us.”
They were important for goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury as well. He played well in the last two games after a shaky Game 4 finish put the series in jeopardy.
James Neal: "Flower stood tall in the net. Geno came up with a huge game, a breakout game for him. We held them off & got a big series win."— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) April 29, 2014
Crosby scooped up the puck as a souvenir for Fleury at the end of the game.
McGuire asked him what words were exchanged along with the memento.
“Just great job,” Crosby said, via the NHL Network. “It wasn’t easy. There was a lot of pressure on everyone, especially the goaltender. He handled it well and bounced back. He was our best player all series.”
The hardest workers, however, were most often members of the other team.
The Blue Jackets have invigorated a fanbase with their determination. The players were left feeling a little empty but proud of what they accomplished by pushing the Penguins so unexpectedly—at least unexpected in the eyes of others.
“It’s a feeling of disappointment. It’s a feeling of a little bit of hurt. Those are really the only words that come to mind right now,” Dubinsky told reporters, via the NHL Network. “We have a proud group in here. We have a group of guys that is resilient, that never gives up, that will fight to the end of every game, every whistle, every period. I think we showed some of that tonight. So I’m proud of that. I’m proud of the ways the guys stuck together.”
I can't wait for #Columbus to have a truly great team. Awesome heart.... And fans were AMAZING!!— Matthew Barnaby (@MattBarnaby3636) April 29, 2014
The Blue Jackets have a bright future, for sure.
For the Penguins, the time is now. And maybe with the lessons they can take away from this tough first-round series, they’ll make the most of it.
Steve Macfarlane has been covering the NHL for more than a decade, including seven seasons for the Calgary Sun. You can follow him on Twitter @MacfarlaneHKY.