At first, Pittsburgh’s special teams were failing them in Wednesday’s 4-3 win over Columbus in Game 1 of their opening-round series at CONSOL Energy Center. Miserably.
The penalty killers started by allowing a first-period power-play goal to former Pen Mark Letestu to give Columbus a 2-1 lead. Then when Pittsburgh was given their first power play of the game to start the second when Blake Comeau was sent to the box for cross-checking, the first power-play unit gave up a shorthanded goal 43 seconds into the man-advantage to give the Blue Jackets a 3-1 lead.
Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang misplayed a puck at the blue line, which Derek MacKenzie picked up and carried down the ice on a breakaway. He capitalized, putting it past goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, hung out to dry by his teammated on that play.
That was certainly a wake-up call for a Pens team that has been dominant on special teams all year long, who immediately responded with two power-play goals of their own and three huge penalty kills.
“The power play was huge for us like they’ve been all season,” Fleury said. “Got us back in the game and from there, I knew we were in good shape and we were going to win that one.”
Defenseman Matt Niskanen led the way in stabilizing the special teams. After the second power-play unit came on to replace the first during that same penalty to Comeau, Niskanen wound up and took a shot from the point. Winger Beau Bennett got a stick on it while posted in the slot, tipping it perfectly past Jackets goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. Just like that, it was now 3-2. It was a start.
“It was a good response, we gave up a shorty,” Niskanen said. “Shortly after that, you could feel deflated. Special teams are an opportunity to gain momentum and we don’t want to give up shorthanded goals. It was a good response from our team.”
Then just 45 seconds after that, with the Pens back on the power play after Johnson was called for interference, Niskanen took the ice with the first power-play unit, replacing Letang. And just 10 seconds into the man-advantage, he found himself with the puck on his stick at the faceoff dot courtesy of Evgeni Malkin. Niskanen took the shot, sending it through the pads of Bobrovsky to even the score at 3-3.
That’s more like it.
“I seemed to get some good looks at the net,” Niskanen said. “I was trying to find shooting lanes. I was able to find Beau’s stick, he made a heck of a nice tip. Then, it was just a quick shot. I think I surprised (Bobrovsky) on the second one. I got to play a little bit more on that power play tonight than I anticipated, but I’ll enjoy that.”
The Pens took three more penalties after that, but their kill came up big both times. Especially on the second one, where the Pens had more puck possession than the Blue Jackets did. They played aggressive and looked like they were trying to score a shorthanded goal of their own – and very nearly did on a few occasions, having the Blue Jackets back on their heels.
Forward Brian Gibbons, playing in his first career NHL postseason game, was excellent on the PK. Head coach Dan Bylsma talked a lot about his speed and how that could be crucial in the matchup against CBJ, and it certainly gave them fits. His most brilliant play came when he forced a point shooter to mishandle the puck, which Gibbons swept out of danger with his glove and skated out of the zone. He carried it hard down the wall and to the net. Brandon Sutter joined him in the other end and they stickhandled around the net, nearly putting it in.
Overall, the way his team bounced back on both the power play and penalty kill was Bylsma’s biggest takeaway from this game.
“Our power play had to respond, it did,” Bylsma said. “Our penalty kill had to respond, the first power-play (goal) they had 15 seconds in, and they had to respond later in the game. I think that was the thing I liked most about this game and our team tonight.”