Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Stellar play clinches series in five

There still is room for improvemen­t before Round 2

- By Dave Molinari Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com and Twitter @MolinariPG.

Win a playoff series in five games, and you’ve done some things well.

Win a playoff series in five games against an opponent that earned 108 points in the regular season, and you likely have done quite a few things very well.

And so it was for the Penguins, who closed out their opening-round series against Columbus — and earned a spot opposite the Washington-Toronto survivor in Round 2 — with a 5-2 victory against the Blue Jackets Thursday night at PPG Paints Arena.

They got stellar goaltendin­g from Marc-Andre Fleury, who stopped 49 of 51 shots.

They got two goals from their power play, which converted five of its 15 chances (33.3 percent) in the series.

They got offensive production from their big-name offensive talents — Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel — and the usual big-game contributi­on from Bryan Rust.

Bring those elements to the second round, and the Penguins should be able to make life miserable for the Capitals or Maple Leafs.

Especially if they can clean up some of the recurring problems they faced against Columbus.

“There’s lots of areas where I know we can improve, get better,” coach Mike Sullivan said.

Reducing the shots-against — or, more to the point — the quality scoring opportunit­ies they allow will be critical. Columbus coach John Tortorella said his team had more than 30 scoring chances in Game 5, and the Blue Jackets finished the series averaging 38.8 shots per game, most of any team to this point in the playoffs.

Part of the reason was that the Penguins struggled to get out of their end efficientl­y for much of Round 1. Columbus deserves some credit for that, because it has an aggressive, effective forecheck.

The Penguins, though, figure to make getting out of the defensive zone cleanly a priority in practices leading up to the next series.

“The biggest thing for us is how quickly we can come out of our end,” center Matt Cullen said. “We’re a team built on speed and puck movement and hockey instincts. The quicker we can get out of our end and get on the forecheck, the better.”

Doing that was a particular issue early in games; the Blue Jackets consistent­ly dominated play then, and the Penguins were fortunate that their sluggish starts didn’t translate to deficits that couldn’t be overcome.

“It was [an issue] in this series,” Cullen said. “I don’t really know why. … Hopefully, we can go to school on that a little bit.”

A productive power play and stingy penalty-killing — Columbus converted 2 of 12 tries with the extra man — helped the Penguins to overcome their poor starts.

Kessel staked them to a lead they never lost with a man-advantage goal at 9:07 of the first period in Game 5, and Crosby’s power-play goal at 5:31 of the third all but officially ended the Blue Jackets season.

“Special teams are very important in the playoffs,” Tortorella said. “And theirs were better than ours.”

He was adamant after Game 5 that, “that’s not a 4-1 series,” and that’s a reasonable perspectiv­e. The Blue Jackets, like the Penguins, controlled play for extended stretches.

“We have to do a better job of not allowing teams to put us on our heels,” Sullivan said.

He praised the Blue Jackets, calling them “the real deal.” So, of course, is his team. There are blemishes and warts to address before the next round begins, but none prevented the Penguins from winning their fifth consecutiv­e playoff series.

“It wasn’t always pretty,” Cullen said. “It wasn’t always our best. But we found a way to get it done.”

 ?? Peter Diana/Post-Gazette ?? Marc-Andre Fleury makes one of his 49 saves, stopping the Blue Jackets' Josh Anderson in the second period.
Peter Diana/Post-Gazette Marc-Andre Fleury makes one of his 49 saves, stopping the Blue Jackets' Josh Anderson in the second period.

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