William Karlsson #25 of the Columbus Blue Jackets scores on goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury #29 of the Pittsburgh Penguins during the third period in Game Four of the Eastern Conference First Round during the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs on April 18, 2017 at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. Columbus defeated Pittsburgh 5-4. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images)
I suppose it wasn’t going to be that easy. After all, as the saying goes, the other guys are getting paid, too. To be fair, the Columbus Blue Jackets, Sergei Bobrovsky in particular, were practically stealing money given how they conducted themselves for the first three games of the series.
John Tortorella’s team couldn’t cash in its solid stretches of play with goals, and Bobrovsky, who will likely win the Vezina Trophy, turned back into the sieve he has always been in the postseason.
By contrast, the Penguins had all the answers. When they were being outplayed, Marc-Andre Fleury stood tall. Once they got their footing, they took it to Columbus with the kind of focus and offensive potency that the Blue Jackets simply don’t possess. The Penguins' attack was relentless, never more so than in Game 3, when they turned a 3-1 deficit after one period into a backbreaking 5-4 win.
The Blue Jackets finally flipped the script last night, grabbing a 3-0 lead and never relinquishing it despite a serious pushback from the Penguins. Tuesday's 5-4 loss was a missed opportunity for the Penguins to get a ton of rest time in advance of a second-round matchup with either Washington or Toronto.
Fear not, though. Nothing that happened in Game 4 suggests that the Jackets have what it takes to mount a historic comeback. For instance, even though they should have spent the third period trying to protect a two-goal lead, Columbus was more than happy to trade chances with Mike Sullivan’s squad. When that advantage was temporarily cut in half, they went to a more conservative and buttoned-down defensive posture, but the Penguins still brought plenty of stress to the equation.
Even a late power play for the Blue Jackets didn’t seal things, as Jake Guentzel again brought the Pens within one with under 30 seconds to play.
To summarize, the Blue Jackets jumped out to a 3-0 lead, Marc-Andre Fleury wasn’t sharp for the first time all series, the crowd was in a lather. ... Just about everything imaginable went wrong for the Penguins, and the outcome was still in doubt with 10 seconds to go.
That doesn’t seem like the recipe for the beginnings of a monumental comeback. It seems simply like a delaying of the inevitable.
For one, Columbus can’t trust Bobrovsky. He let in multiple soft goals again, something that has been a theme for him this series, as well as his entire playoff career. He made a great save late in the third period on Ron Hainsey, but that was one of his only noteworthy positive contributions all night. Normally, a team looking to win four straight will need its goalie to steal at least one of those games, and possibly two. Bobrovsky (27 of 31 on Tuesday) does not look at all like a man up to that task.
For two, it’s easy to visualize the Jackets reverting to more of their careless, undisciplined, hit-chasing ways now that they’ve tasted a little bit of success. Kyle Quincey took a stupid penalty up 3-0 and the Penguins’ subsequent power-play goal nearly turned the tide dramatically enough to actually shift the final outcome of the game. It just seems like, despite knowing better, Columbus can’t resist the urge to hulk up and play tough-guy hockey.
Finally, and probably most importantly, the Penguins are still the Penguins. Even though they got run under again early on, they showed that they can turn up the heat on Columbus and make things miserable for prolonged stretches of time. What’s more, their collective relentlessness has never gone away at any point in the series, no matter what the situation.
They still have the best players in the series. They still have two home games left, not that I think they’ll need them. They still have Fleury, who, despite having his weakest outing of the series last night, does not cut the profile of a man who will wilt after one bad game. Quite the contrary, actually. I’ve been one of Fleury’s biggest doubters, but I expect him to respond with a big Game 5 performance.
Yes, a sweep would have been very nice, but don’t sweat Columbus’ victory. The Blue Jackets, backs against the wall, in front of a rabid crowd, delivered their best effort of the series. It was barely enough.
Hopefully their fans enjoyed the victory, because the bet here is that it was the last meaningful hockey that building will see for several months.