The Penguins took the ice on Wednesday night at PPG Paints Arena for Game 1 against Columbus well aware of how the Blue Jackets would attack them and how the Blue Jackets could hurt them.
The Pens’ response was such that not even losing goaltender Matt Murray in the pregame warmup was enough to alter their focus or resolve.
It ended 3-1 Penguins and it played out much as the Pens’ 4-1 win over Columbus in what amounted to a showdown for home-ice advantage in this series had back on April 4 at PPG.
It was grinding and physical and it left a mark, a couple, actually, as anticipated.
But throughout, the Penguins had the necessary answers.
There were some highlights to admire, including Bryan Rust and Phil Kessel sniping Sergei Bobrovsky and spot-starter Marc-Andre Fleury denying talented rookie defenseman Zach Werenski on an open look from the right circle with the game still scoreless midway through the first period.
But mostly this was the Penguins doing the dirty work, the Penguins doing the little things and the Penguins first and foremost doing what was necessary not to get scored on, even as they were being out-shot, 16-3, in the opening 20 minutes.
Most of those shots were low-percentage attempts from outside the dots.
When the Jackets drove the net for rebounds or jam-in opportunities, the Pens held their ground and protected their net (5-foot-11, 180-pound Jake Guentzel taking 6-2, 216-pound Boone Jenner to the ice rather than let him get to Fleury was a high-profile example but far from the only such play).
When the Jackets threatened to generate from below the goal line, even Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were positioned at the edge of Fleury’s crease to either make a defensive play or skate a loose puck out of trouble (when those two are working like that, everyone should be working like that, and everyone was).
And when the Jackets got the puck deep, the Penguins got it back out by chipping it out off the wall, by flipping it out into the neutral zone, by patiently re-setting when the circumstances allowed, and even by firing an occasional stretch pass when opportunity knocked (the results of those attempts included a couple of icings but also the Penguins’ third goal).
The Jackets were hard to play against, as advertised.
But the Penguins were, too.
And if the Penguins can be that, their talent has a chance to take over eventually, as it did in Game 1.
“It’s not just the defenseman,” head coach Mike Sullivan said of the Pens’ refusing to allow the Blue Jackets’ forecheck to take over and dictate the game. “It’s a five-man cooperative effort that quite honestly starts in the neutral zone.”
In the defensive zone, the Pens, likewise, were gritty enough to pay the required price and the prerequisite attention to detail as necessary.
That’s more than half the battle and the Penguins know it and they’re embracing the challenge.
“They’re a strong team,” Ian Cole assessed. “They like to get to the net. They like to get pucks to the net. I think we did a good job boxing out, a good job trying to deny that, after the first period especially.
“Being able to continue to do that over the course of a seven-game series is going to be crucial for us to have success.”
If the Blue Jackets can’t solve that, seven games won’t be necessary.
“I liked a lot of our minutes as far as some of our forechecking,” Columbus head coach John Tortorella maintained. “But to get the finish to the blue (the crease), the pucks to the blue, it was a little bit of a struggle there for some minutes.
“We’re going to have to find a way to get on the inside and bang away and create more offense.”
So the Jackets have that to deal with in advance of Game 2.
The Penguins, conversely, will take the ice Friday night even more sold on their approach, whether it’s Fleury or Murray in net.
Added Cole: “Everyone knows if we go out and play our game we can put a good game together in front of any goaltender.”