PITTSBURGH, Pa. – Marc-Andre Fleury woke up on Friday morning and went to work with a smile on his face.
Sure, the Pittsburgh Penguins goalie would like to have the final five minutes of Wednesday night’s Game 4 overtime loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets back. He also knows, however, that he isn’t going to get them.
So he did what he does after a loss. He looked at the tape, went over it with his coach, and then moved on. Dwelling on it at this point wouldn’t do any good.
Besides, the series is still even.
“It’s 2-2,” Fleury said. “We’re not down. We’re in good shape. It’s square, yeah.”
Even if it doesn’t exactly feel that way. The Penguins were seconds away from taking a 3-1 lead when Fleury misplayed a puck behind the Pittsburgh net, freeing up Brandon Dubinsky to tie the game in the final moments of regulation. Then, Nick Foligno’s innocent looking wrist shot from the blue line slipped under Fleury’s glove 2:49 into overtime to win it for Columbus.
Fleury understands he perhaps should have played things differently. Oh well.
“You get up the next morning, have a smile on my face, come to the room,” Fleury said.
Fleury wasn’t the only one smiling. Columbus began the series still searching for its first playoff win. Now the Blue Jackets have two in a week against a team considered a Stanley Cup contender. And they’ve done it in a most peculiar way, coming from two goals down in Games 2 and 4 to get Pittsburgh’s full attention.
It’s not exactly the plotline most expected. Then again, little seems to be going according to plan in a series that has Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin still searching for their first goals of the post-season, and youngsters like 20-year-old Ryan Johansen growing up on the job.
“There’s been surprises,” Columbus coach Todd Richards said. “The way the series has gone, each team has had leads and found ways to lose a game, or the other team has found a way to win.”
For Richards, a “textbook” win for the Blue Jackets would be of the 2-1, 3-2 variety. Instead both sides have endured wild momentum swings. Twice the Penguins have had a chance to take a two-game lead in the series. Both times they have faltered. Twice the Blue Jackets have put Pittsburgh in an early hole only to come up short.
The one thing the Blue Jackets haven’t done, however, is fold. The belief that had existed only in pockets of the Columbus locker room has started to grow.
It’s a process Richards believes began when the team acquired defenceman Jack Johnson from Los Angeles in 2012. During a team meeting after the season, Richards asked each player what they wanted from the following year.
When Johnson stood up, he didn’t talk about simply making the Blue Jackets respectable.
“His response was ‘I want to win the Stanley Cup. That’s my goal,” Richards said. “It was him that said ‘I want to win the Stanley Cup.’ Not make the playoffs or come in second. That was one real positive thing as far as the attitude and the expectation.”
One that has rubbed off on his teammates. While the Blue Jackets still have plenty of work to do just to get out of the opening round, they understand they are already in uncharted territory. The longer they stick around, the higher the pressure mounts on the Penguins.
“We’re an in your face type team,” Foligno said. “We’re a team that is not going to quit. We’ve played that role all year long, the underdogs.”
The Penguins have played the role of the favourites. They cruised to the Metropolitan Division title despite losing stars like Malkin, Kris Letang and Paul Martin for chunks of the season due to injury.
Only Crosby has remained healthy all year. Yet the magic he provided while leading the NHL with 104 points on 36 goals and 68 assists hasn’t appeared yet in the post-season. He has four assists but hasn’t scored in his last nine playoff games. The Penguins are just 3-6 in those contests.
Crosby isn’t quite ready to panic, but he knows he needs to be more of a difference maker.
“I think to a certain point you want to create more,” he said. “I wouldn’t say more frustrating. We’ll find a way to be better and score.”
Time is running out.