Evgeni Malkin #71 of the Pittsburgh Penguins watches as teammate Jake Guentzel #59 beats Sergei Bobrovsky #72 of the Columbus Blue Jackets for a goal during the third period of Game Three of the Eastern Conference First Round during the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs on April 16, 2017 at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. Pittsburgh defeated Columbus 5-4 in overtime. Pittsburgh leads the series 3-0. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)
COLUMBUS — The Penguins were playing a dangerous game and knew it. They had been outplayed by the Blue Jackets in the first period of the first two games of this first-round series, so it was only a matter of time before a slow start backfired.
All of 11 seconds, really.
The Blue Jackets find any and every reason possible to fire their Civil War-themed cannon inside Nationwide Arena, and Cam Atkinson gave a good one with a goal faster than you could say home-ice advantage.
And, as Columbus captain Nick Foligno so eloquently put it, the Blue Jackets needed to use their home-ice advantage to their advantage.
That Game 3 saw four players take a puck to the face showed the level of desperation involved. That the Penguins won 5-4 showed the reigning Stanley Cup champions' combination of resiliency and resolve.
Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said the comeback from a 3-1 first-period deficit “might've been our most complete game here in the last month to month-and-a-half.”
“There were so many things to like about our game,” Sullivan said. “Some of the goals didn't go our way early on, but we responded the right way. That's such an important aspect of our group is our ability to respond and act the right way. The game's not always going to go your way out there. It's the nature of the sport. What's most important is how we react. We were challenged with that, and I thought our guys did a terrific job.”
Atkinson's goal gave the Blue Jackets their first lead of the series, even if it was short-lived. Only 3:16 later, rookie Jake Guentzel tied it at 1-1.
But the Blue Jackets got the kind of puck luck Columbus coach John Tortorella had been hoping for, first when the puck went off an official's skate on Atkinson's opening goal and again when he stole a lazy pass from Conor Sheary to Sidney Crosby and beat Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury with a backhand for a 2-1 lead at 5:02.
So, Nationwide Arena was rocking when defenseman Zach Werenski fired a wrister that got stuck in the top of the net at 6:10. It gave the Blue Jackets what appeared to be a commanding 3-1 lead — if the only thing you were watching was the scoreboard.
“I thought it might've been our best start of the series. It was hands-down our best first period,” Sullivan said. “The score didn't indicate that, but we really liked a lot of the first period.”
If you were watching the game on the ice, it was becoming apparent that while the Blue Jackets skated early like they were shot out of a, well, cannon, they failed to maintain that torrid pace after the first 10 minutes.
“I thought we looked pretty calm, even though they got those three quick goals,” Fleury said. “I thought we played great after that. We had the momentum. We carried the game over. I didn't see any panic. Everyone was confident that we could come back.”
The Blue Jackets owned one playoff win here in franchise history, a 4-3 overtime victory in Game 4 of their 2014 first-round series against the Penguins. They understood the value of gaining an early lead and protecting it. And yet, they couldn't.
“They surged a little bit,” Tortorella said, “and we had a tough time catching up to them.”
As luck would have it, the puck struck the facemasks of not only goalies Bobrovsky and Fleury but also Penguins center Nick Bonino and Werenski. Where Bonino returned wearing a mask, Werenski couldn't see well enough to play in overtime.
What we saw was Bryan Rust and Evgeni Malkin score second-period goals and Guentzel give the Penguins a 4-3 lead at 11:48 of the third before Brandon Dubinsky's rebound tied it for the Blue Jackets with 4:49 left.
Dubinsky scored the overtime winner when the Blue Jackets beat the Penguins here in February, but his hope for repeat heroics was foiled when his shot hit Fleury's facemask.
“I was happy to use my head with this one,” said Fleury, who was asked if he saw the puck. “I saw it coming because it was between my eyes, so I had a good view of it, yeah.”
Columbus saw it coming, too. But you can't blame the Blue Jackets if they didn't believe their eyes, especially after Guentzel scored the winner.
This was their chance to tighten the series, and they let a two-goal lead slip away. They know the odds of overcoming a 3-0 series deficit are miniscule.
“Sure, it's a tough loss,” Tortorella said. “We know the situation we're in.”
So do the Penguins, who took the Blue Jackets' best shot right between the eyes and didn't flinch.