The Penguins went into the first round facing the Columbus Blue Jackets in what turned out to be a fast-paced, often surprising, and hard-fought battle. The Penguins emerged victorious after six games, battling back after many lost leads and goal deficits. But three storylines stood out as top narratives for this first-round playoff battle:
Marc-Andre Fleury proves strong enough to be a top goaltender: After last year’s playoffs meltdown, there were a lot of questions swirling about Marc-Andre Fleury and his ability to win a playoff game for the Penguins. After this series, that question seems to be largely laid to rest. Fleury was good – not great, but not terrible. He had his moments of weakness, but proved, in the long run, to be resilient and came up strong when the Penguins needed him. And while he let Columbus score at key moments, many of those goals could also be attributed to Pittsburgh’s relatively weak defense, which took a few games to get in gear.
But most importantly about Marc-Andre Fleury was that he did not seem shaken by his up and down performance, unlike in previous years when he was easily put off by any tiny mistake. A key moment came in Game 3, where after letting in two shots early, a talking-to from Dan Bylsma allowed Fleury to go back out and come up big to eventually win the game for the Penguins, only letting in one goal after that. Another came during Game 5, when Penguins fans nervously awaited Fleury’s reaction to losing Game 4 on a bad mistake handling the puck behind the net. But Fleury stood strong, leading the Penguins to a 3-1 victory.
If Fleury (or the defense surrounding him) is strong enough to lead the Penguins to an eventual Stanley Cup remains a question, but for now Penguins fans should rest easier. The easily-rattled Fleury that collapsed during pivotal moments in playoff runs has been replaced by one who errs less and recovers faster.
Sidney Crosby held scoreless (but not pointless): This was, as Pierre McGuire would put it, “the story that would not die”. It seemed that no announcer could get over the fact that Sidney Crosby was, for the entire series, held goalless.
This was, for the most part, attributed to Brandon Dubinsky, who was matched up against Crosby and played against him aggressively. And while Dubinsky did an admirable job as a counterpoint to Crosby, the argument was fundamentally stupid. Because Crosby may not have been scoring goals, but he was contributing. He was not “contained”, as the announcers suggested, and having a Corsi that averaged close to 60% and an assist per game would count as “contained” for any other player.
But Stars like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin not scoring for most of the series revealed something Pittsburgh has on their side – scoring depth. The Penguins won three games without Crosby or Malkin scoring a single goal by having players like Brandon Sutter and Jussi Jokinen step up, as did Paul Martin, who racked up a team high eight assists.
Evgeni Malkin’s hat trick seals the deal: Though, as mentioned earlier, Evgeni Malkin did not score a goal until Game Six (though he did rack up four assists), when he did score he did so with aplomb. His Game Six hat trick held the Penguins ahead through a late, three-goal surge by Columbus and allowed them to win both the game and the series.