Penguins take page from 2009, ’16 Cup teams to down Blue Jackets
As they opened the playoffs Wednesday night, the Penguins hearkened back to their two most recent Stanley Cup championships.
Marc-Andre Fleury, the hero of the 2009 run, was the surprise starter in goal.
Bryan Rust, Phil Kessel and Nick Bonino, clutch performers throughout so much of the 2016 title march, provided the offensive support he needed.
The result was a convincing 3-1 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets in Game 1 of an Eastern Conference quarterfinals series at PPG Paints Arena.
Game 2 is set for Friday night.
“At the end, it was a great feeling,” Fleury said. “It was a fun game to win.”
Fans stream into the building before the Penguins and Blue Jackets Game 1 matchup in the first round of Stanley Cup playoff action Wednesday, April 12, 2017 at PPG Arena. For more images from Game 1, visit the Trib’s photo gallery.
Photo by Chaz Palla
Just like last season, when Fleury and Matt Murray were out with concussions and Jeff Zatkoff started the first two games of a series with the Rangers, the Penguins began the playoffs with some goaltender drama.
Murray left the ice about halfway through warm-ups with a lower-body injury. It came less than a week after he favored his right leg while making a breakaway save on New Jersey’s Taylor Hall in the third period of his final start of the regular season.
Coach Mike Sullivan said he would have more information about Murray’s condition Thursday.
Fleury said he found out he would be making the 101st postseason appearance of his career on his way off the ice at the end of warm-ups. Goaltending coach Mike Bales delivered the news.
Fleury’s pre-game routine was thrown completely out of whack, of course, but he did his finest work in the first period. The Blue Jackets had the Penguins on their heels, jumping out to a 16-3 shots advantage, but Fleury kept the game scoreless.
Most notably, he aggressively challenged a Zach Werenski shot from the top of the right circle after a cross-ice pass from Scott Hartnell about eight minutes in.
“What can you say about his character and compete level, just to step in and be as good as he was, especially in that first period?” Sullivan said. “We needed him because they controlled the game.”
If Fleury acted like he had been in that situation before, it’s because he had. As a third-year pro in November of 2005, he was thrust into action when starter Jocelyn Thibault took a Konstantin Koltsov shot to the neck in warm-ups before a game in Philadelphia. Fleury responded with a 45-save performance in a 3-2 overtime win.
“He’s one of the most professional guys we know,” Bonino said. “He didn’t even blink. He went in there and made 30 saves for us and was the first star of the game. He was awesome.”
After Fleury kept the Blue Jackets at bay, Rust, Kessel and Bonino — some of the biggest goal-scoring stars of last season’s playoff run — snatched momentum in a dramatic way.
It started with a Rust goal from the slot 75 seconds into the second period after nifty passes off the stick of Evgeni Malkin and skate of Kessel.
“There were swings all over the game,” Rust said. “They had pressure in a lot of the first, then we had pressure in the second. It was kind of back and forth. To be able to get that first one gained a lot of momentum for us.”
It continued with a picture-perfect Kessel laser beam from the left faceoff circle on the power play less than three minutes later.
Sullivan had been encouraging Kessel to shoot more while he was scoring only two goals in his final 26 games of the regular season. This type of shot is what the coach had in mind.
“He has one of the best wrist shots in the game,” Sullivan said. “When he shoots like that, he’s accurate. He’s got a deceptive release. He’s got a quick release, and the velocity on it, he’s got as hard a wrist shot as there is in the league.”
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter at @BombulieTrib.