Justin Schultz #4 of the Pittsburgh Penguins blocks the pass of Scott Hartnell #43 of the Columbus Blue Jackets in Game Two of the Eastern Conference First Round during the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at PPG Paints Arena on April 14, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH — Sometimes statistics, at least on the surface, don’t always tell the full story. The numbers in Friday’s Penguins game portray that the Penguins were physically dominated by the Blue Jackets, being outhit 51-30, and offensively-bested, being outshot 40-32.
The truth of the Penguins’ Game 2 playoff win against the Blue Jackets, though, lies beyond those numbers. While Columbus valued a more brutish, coarse approach, shooting whatever shot it could at Marc-Andre Fleury and hitting any Penguin player that came near, the Penguins played more nuanced. Instead, the Penguins’ defense focused on blocking shots and keeping Columbus away from the net, while on offense they looked for quality shots.
The Penguins’ approach to the game proved more effective, as they used goals from Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel, Evgeni Malkin and an empty-netter from Patric Hornqvist as well as steady goaltending from Fleury to win 4-1 and take a 2-0 lead in the series.
The approach isn’t anything new for the Penguins — they’ve played that way all season — but the difference between the two teams makes it jarring. No stretch better exemplifies that difference than the first eight and half minutes of the game. The Blue Jackets jumped on the Penguins, recording the first eight shots of the game. Meanwhile, the Penguins waited it out, keeping Columbus’s shots out far and staying patient until a good shot came offensively.
“Patience is an important element. I think we have the ability to be a quick-strike team, so I think patience is going to be important for us,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “We’ve got to make the plays when they’re there to be made and if not we need to make simple plays.”
The Penguins’ talent affords them the ability to have that patience, knowing they have an abundance of high-level players to capitalize on the opportunities when they do come. As it turns out, that opportunity came eight and half minutes in, when Conor Sheary saw Columbus goalie Sergei Bobrovsky leave the net to field a puck from behind the net. Sheary’s forecheck was successful, jostling the puck away from Bobrovsky and getting it to Jake Guentzel, who made a quick, sweet pass to Sidney Crosby before he netted it home.
“I just saw his back was turned to me. I tried to close the gap as fast as I could and make him make a decision, make a play,” Sheary said.
The Blue Jackets answered with a goal seven minutes into the the second period, but after that, it was all-Penguins. The Penguins’ patience turned into opportunities, opportunities which Guentzel and Malkin would take advantage of.
On the other end, the Penguins’ defense was masterly, blocking 23 shots, while generally keeping Fleury clean in front of the net, corralling rebounds and making the Blue Jackets shoot most shots from beyond the faceoff circle.
“They’ve been trying to shoot a lot of pucks, which will evidently lead to the blocked shots,” Penguins defenseman Ian Cole said. “We’re just going to try to keep being competitive and to keep getting in shot lanes and if blocked shots happen, that’s great.”
The Penguins’ defensive efforts certainly haven’t been lost on Fleury. With Matt Murray sustaining a pregame injury in Game 1, Fleury was kind of thrown in the fire. Having a strong defense in front of him has helped him navigate a situation he didn’t anticipate.
“The guys are playing great in front of me,” Fleury said.
Those feelings amongst the Penguins’ skaters are reciprocated toward Fleury. No matter his 3.02 regular season GAA, they have endless confidence in the veteran goalie. It’s that confidence in Fleury that has allowed the Penguins to not change their defensive approach. They have no problem with allowing the Blue Jackets to throw a lot of shots at Fleury because they have confidence that he’s not going to let them slip through.
“He’s a lot of fun to play in front of,” defenseman Justin Schultz said. “He’s always talking out there and just standing on his head when we need him, making huge saves in key times.”
Now, behind Fleury’s goaltending, the offense’s patience and skill and the defense’s ability to limit Columbus’s quality chances, the Penguins will take a take a 2-0 lead into Columbus. The recipe, that combination, has put the Blue Jackets in a hole that will be difficult to overcome.
“I don’t think that’s some unique formula,” Cole said. “I don’t think it’s any special, secret plan that we have.”
Cole’s right. The Penguins’ approach to the game isn’t some revolutionary, ultramodern formula. But it is a winning one.