A little over a year ago, Marc-Andre Fleury was in a groove. Entering a Thursday night clash with Nashville, the Pens goalie had won seven of his past eight starts. He’d win that one, too.
Midway through the contest, however, a blast off the stick of former teammate James Neal caught “Flower” flush, dislodging his mask. Shortly after the game, the Pens’ reigning MVP was diagnosed with a concussion.
The rest of the story, you know. While Fleury convalesced, super rookie Matt Murray stepped forward in Dryden-esque fashion to backstop the Pens to a Stanley Cup. Reduced to the role of cheerleader, the Quebec native soon became fodder for trade rumors.
It seemed somehow fitting that Fleury would emerge from the shadows in the wake of a freak injury to Murray during warmups last night to pace the Pens to a 3-1 victory over Columbus in the postseason opener at PPG Paints Arena.
Had it not been for Flower’s heroics? The Pens likely wouldn’t have survived a Nightmare on Elm Street first period. His 16 saves—including a bold stop on Zach Werenski from the right circle—enabled the Pens to weather the storm and find their seas legs.
Freddy Krueger himself couldn’t have devised a more heinous start. As if shot from the replica Civil War cannon at Nationwide Arena, the Blue Jackets hammered the Pens to the tune of 23 opening-period hits, 11 in the first four minutes alone.
The building fairly echoed with the sound of crunching bones. Brandon Saad mashed Scott Wilson into the boards 88 seconds in, sending the dazed Pens winger to the locker room for tests and perhaps a whiff of smelling salts.
In rapid succession, Brian Dumoulin was belted by Josh Anderson, Matt Calvert and big Boone Jenner. Sidney Crosby—unusually quiet at the outset—absorbed hits from Blue Jackets bruisers Scott Hartnell and Seth Jones near the three-minute mark. Then the burly Anderson applied the piece de resistance, flattening Evgeni Malkin with a booming check in the neutral zone.
Columbus dominated on the shot clock as well, piling up an astonishing 16-3 edge.
Fleury held firm.
“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?” Pens coach Mike Sullivan remarked. “We needed him because they controlled the game.”
In the second period, it was all Penguins. Afforded a chance to regroup during the intermission, the black and gold turned the tables with a vengeance, outshooting the Blue Jackets, 16-4, and beating Columbus goalie Sergei Bobrovsky three times.
Speedy Bryan Rust was the first to cash in. Playing the off wing on a line with Malkin and Phil Kessel, No. 17 burst into the slot a minute into the period and ripped the puck past Bobrovsky’s blocker pad.
Moments later, with Calvert in the box for tripping, the Pens struck on the power play. Working his magic from the left faceoff circle, Kessel took a pass from Justin Schultz and froze Jackets defenseman Scott Harrington with a series of fakes. Barber pole stick flexing like a sapling in the wind, “Phil the Thrill” then blew a wicked shot past Bobrovsky’s glove to stake the Pens to a 2-0 lead.
Nick Bonino provided some insurance late in the period. Following up a sharp-angle shot from Patric Hornqvist, lucky No. 13 slipped around hulking rookie Gabriel Carlsson and banged home the rebound. The goal punctuated a near-perfect period of hockey for the locals and put the Blue Jackets decidedly back on their heels.
The visitors finally solved Fleury at 12:41 of the third period, when the pesky Calvert pounced on a turnover in the slot and beat No. 29 from point-blank range. Rejuvenated, Columbus came at the Pens hard in the closing minutes. But Flower stopped Calvert and Hartnell on rapid-fire chances with 2:24 to play to slam the door.
“He didn’t even blink,” marveled Bonino. “He went in there and made 31 saves for us and was the first star of the game. He was awesome.”
Kessel paced the Pens with a goal and an assist to earn the second star of the game. He unleashed a game-high seven shots on goal.
Playing in his first game since March 15, Malkin had three shots on goal and collected two assists. “Geno” was voted number three star.
Olli Maatta played a strong game for the black and gold. The 22-year-old defenseman finished a plus-1 while registering four blocked shots and an assist in 19:56 of ice time.
On the flip side, Crosby and linemates Jake Guentzel and Conor Sheary were held without a point. Sid and the kids were a combined minus-2 for the evening.
Columbus outshot the Pens, 32-29, and led the way in hits (49-35). The Pens blocked 22 shots to the Blue Jackets 12 and won 55 percent of the faceoffs. Carter Rowney led the Pens with six hits, followed by Dumoulin and Tom Kuhnhackl (five each).
No word yet on the nature or severity of Murray’s injury.