PITTSBURGH - Buckle up?
The Penguins finally buckled down in Game 5 against the Columbus Blue Jackets, providing a blueprint for ending the series Monday and moving on to a second-round encounter with the Philadelphia Flyers or New York Rangers.
Should they fail, Game 7 against Columbus will be Wednesday at Consol Energy Center.
The typical ingredients required for playoff success — physical play, responsibility with the puck and, more than anything, defensive stinginess — all were on display in Game 5 even though the Penguins played without injured defenseman Brooks Orpik, one of their better players in this series.
“That was our most complete game as a defensive group,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “We did our job, and it allowed the forwards to play their game better.”
The Penguins outshot the Blue Jackets, 51-24, in Game 5, and while their forwards bombarded Columbus goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, they accounted for their defensive zone before focusing on offense.
That hasn't always been their way in the postseason — recent series against the Flyers and Islanders have compiled plenty of evidence that the Penguins instinctively think offense first — but was paramount to their success Saturday.
Penguins coaches were delighted with the play of the defensemen. It remains unknown if the group will have to play without Orpik, who was noticeably limping Saturday, for the remainder of the series.
“It hurts,” Niskanen said. “He logs a lot of minutes. He has the toughest assignment of checking the other team's first line every night. That's tough to replace. But I think we've proven this year that we're capable of having other guys step in and still be an effective team.”
Defenseman Robert Bortuzzo was the man to replace Orpik and, by all accounts, did so impressively. He and defenseman Rob Scuderi — they seldom played together before — were solid throughout the game.
“I thought he was fantastic,” Scuderi said of Bortuzzo. “He brings a lot of energy. ... I think I can speak for the room where everyone's glad to see him do well.”
The duo of Kris Letang and Paul Martin also thrived, consistently playing with forwards Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, who played on the same line.
The coaches decided to leave Niskanen and Olli Maatta together. They each responded by playing more than 20 minutes of almost flawless hockey.
Columbus' only goal came on a power play.
Earlier in the series, Penguins coaches weren't pleased with the defensive effort from the forwards.
In fact, the coaching staff tabulated 10 odd-man rushes for Columbus in Game 1, largely because all three Penguins forwards were trapped in the offensive zone.
Starting with what could have been a playoff-altering approach Saturday, Penguins forwards were there to help the defensemen.
“Our forwards backtracked really hard,” Niskanen said. “If our forwards are having a good game (defensively), it makes a defenseman's job a lot easier.”
The Penguins return to a building that hasn't witnessed their finest postseason defense. In two games at Nationwide Arena during this series, they've allowed seven goals.
“I think they are going to give us their best,” Bylsma said. “We have to match that, or exceed that.”
(Josh Yohe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @JoshYohe_Trib.)