With his goaltender in the crosshairs, Dan Bylsma called out his whole club on Thursday.
“I think the work and compete and the battle level has probably been the most troubling thing from our team,” the Pittsburgh Penguins coach said.
“It has got to be raised up to a level that is necessary at this time of year. We have ourselves in a series now. It’s 2-2 and a best-of-three and we have to have that in our game and in our team if we are going to win this series.”
The Penguins appeared to have Game 4 sewn up on Wednesday night in Columbus, no matter that the Blue Jackets were pressing and had pulled goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky in favour of a sixth skater.
A routine dump-in by the Jackets in the final minute led to a stumbling gaffe by goalie Marc-Andre Fleury behind the net and the tying goal quickly was scored by Brandon Dubinsky. The ice barely was dry in overtime when Nick Foligno’s wrist shot eluded Fleury, sending the teams back to the Consol Energy Center for Game 5 on Saturday.
After that, the best-of-seven Eastern Conference quarterfinal will shift back to Columbus for Game 6 on Monday.
Few figured the Penguins would have an easy time when they drew the Blue Jackets in the first round. Yes, the Penguins won all five meetings between the organizations during the 2013-14 regular season and were 16 points ahead of the Jackets in the conference standings.
But despite carrying the knowledge that the Jackets would not be pushovers, the Penguins themselves have been pushed around at times in the first four games.
If it’s a team that has decided it can turn on the star power when the series gets to the crucial stage — and that’s where the series is now — well, it might as well hand over the final two wins to the Jackets.
Bylsma’s frank acknowledgement of his team’s play could be seen as a way to take the spotlight off Fleury, but the fact remains that none of the Penguins have been overly worthy through four games.
Sidney Crosby has just four assists, and Bylsma was asked directly about No. 87’s health. You can bet that at best, Crosby is banged-up as much as any other player at this time of year.
“He’s like everyone else,” Bylsma said. “Healthy and ready to go.”
If that’s the case, Crosby has to bring more in the next two games, and in a third if it’s required. The same is true for Evgeni Malkin.
With all due respect to Dubinsky and defenceman Jack Johnson — two players on the ice for Columbus, usually, when Crosby is — we’re sure Crosby has been checked by higher-profile opponents before and got through it. Yet he has not scored in nine playoff games, dating to last spring, and Malkin is dry through eight.
Bylsma, who gave his players the day off from the ice and from media availability, doesn’t have to be told there would be questions surrounding Fleury heading into the playoffs, based on the netminder’s failures in recent post-seasons.
Fleury has not been consistently sharp, but he has company there, not only from the Jackets’ Sergei Bobrovsky, but from many starters in the playoffs. Consider that of the 28 games contested before the three on Thursday night, 21 saw the winning team score at least four goals.
“(Fleury) was our best player (in Game 4) and unfortunately a mistake behind the net cost us,” Bylsma said. “Marc knows he should have stayed in the net.”
If it does turn out that the Jackets upset the Penguins and move on to the second round, the Pittsburgh players won’t be able to say they weren’t ready for the hard, aggressive forecheck from Columbus.
“We see that in other series and in other years, that the first round is the toughest round and we are in that right now,” Bylsma said.
“The good thing is we have it in front of us, we have the three games, the two wins in front of us. We can move on, but we know it is going to be tough.”
ALL JACK-ED UP
If he could, Todd Richards might not take Jack Johnson off the ice. The defenceman has been a stud for the Columbus Blue Jackets through four games of the Eastern Conference quarterfinal against the Pittsburgh Penguins, averaging 29 minutes 36 seconds a game.
“I think Jack’s ceiling is outside somewhere,” Richards said on Thursday morning in Columbus. “It is impressive, the minutes he is able to log, his shift length and, if he does get caught out, he still seems to have energy.
“And he is playing tough minutes. They are not easy. He is playing against top players, world-class players, and he is able to do it over and over again.”
Johnson, who is second in Jackets scoring in the series with five points (three goals and two assists), averaged 24 minutes and 40 seconds of ice time during the regular season.