In our 3 Rounds preview of the Pittsburgh Penguins versus the Columbus Blue Jackets, we examined how this series may very well come down to the goaltenders. Pens netminder Marc-Andre Fleury, despite being a Stanley Cup champion with 79 games of playoff experience, has been prone to epic collapses in recent post-seasons, and many consider the weight of Pittsburgh’s 2014 Cup hopes to be resting on his shoulders.
In Columbus, the situation is much the same. The Jackets are a team that have lived and died on goalie Sergei Bobrovsky since he joined the team, winning a Vezina trophy last season and helping guide the club to only it’s second playoff spot in franchise history this year. It was surmised that the better goaltender would likely lead his team out of a surprisingly tough first round match up.
However, it seems neither is willing to do so, yet.
Say what you will about Pittsburgh’s mighty offense, which was second in the Eastern Conference this year with 249 goals, because it doesn’t seem to be making an impact so far. In fact, it could be said that, to this point, they’ve given Bobrovsky a free ride, one that he hasn’t been able to take advantage of.
Superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have been held goalless, while offensive players Chris Kunitz, James Neal, and Kris Letang have just one point combined. In fact, the Penguins’ leading scorer is defenseman Paul Martin, with six assists through three games (a lofty total, considering he finished an injury-filled season with just 15 points).
One would think that with all those big guns having gone silent, Bobrovsky would have been able to snatch a couple of victories for the Jackets, yet they find themselves with a 2-1 series deficit.
Which isn’t to say that Bobrovsky has been horrible. He made 39 saves in a double-overtime, game two victory, the first playoff win in the history of the Jackets. However, he faltered in game one, allowing three straight goals to erase a 3-1 Jackets lead, and matched that performance in game three.
For Fleury, the story has been nearly identical. Facing a Jackets roster whose scoring leaders have gone quiet (Ryan Johansen, Cam Atkinson, RJ Umberger and Brandon Dubinsky have combined for just two goals), Fleury has still found a way to struggle. He’s allowed 12 goals, the same as Bobrovksy, but sports a lower save percentage through three games (.899 to .904). Yet, thanks to timely scoring by his offense, Fleury has managed to come away with two victories, despite his efforts in goal (once again).
Last night’s pivotal game three could be considered a microcosm of the goaltending story in this series so far. Columbus scored two goals on their first three shots and held a 2-0 lead just 3:18 into the game, causing many to believe that Fleury was going to have another one of those long nights, and causing back-up goaltender Jeff Zatkoff to get a little time on national television as the camera frantically cut to him on the bench. Penguins coach Dan Bylsma used his timeout to calm the troops, Fleury more so than any of them.
Then, during the third period, it was Bobrovsky’s turn to stumble. Holding a 3-1 lead and just over 14 minutes away from the Jacket’s first playoff win on home ice and first series lead ever, the Penguins stormed back with three goals in just 2:13 to go ahead 4-3. It was a lead Pittsburgh would not relinquish, as the Jackets managed just 5 shots on Fleury in the final frame to help the Penguins’ goaltender finish his night in a much easier fashion than he started it.
In Bobrovsky’s defense, the team in front of him learned a hard lesson in how to win a playoff game last night. Despite emerging from the first period with a 2-0 lead, the Jackets were outshot by a 16-7 margin, a trend which would continue for the rest of the night as the Penguins carried most of the play and continued to pump twice as many pucks on goal (41-20) as Columbus.
So where do we go from here? For one thing, it’s clear that the Jackets still need Bobrovksy to be amazing if they are to have any chance. Twice now the team has squandered two goal leads, and they could very well be up 3-0 in this series instead of down 2-1 if Bobrovsky had been able to shut the door. Again, that’s not an indictment on Bobrovksy’s play, the team in front of him has to be better, but it just reinforces what we already know: the Jackets live and die with Bobrovksy between the pipes.
For Pittsburgh, the story continues to be written as it always has. Fleury falters, but manages to make just enough saves to get the victory thanks to the depth of scoring of the team in front of him. Crosby and Malkin can’t stay quiet forever, and it seems just a matter of time before at least one of them breaks out.
The x-factor here won’t be whether Fleury can match or even exceed Bobrovsky’s play as he has so far, it’s going to be whether the Columbus netminder can flash his Vezina skills and steal a game or two. With both team’s scoring leaders struggling to find the back of the net consistently, this battle of the goalies has just been magnified, and this series may yet come down to which can outduel the other.
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