The plan, Scott Hartnell acknowledged before the series began, was for the Blue Jackets to rub the Penguins out, to get under their skin and to get in their heads, to hit, agitate, irritate and frustrate, to wear them down and wear them out.
The plan backfired on Columbus in Game 2.
A multi-player scrum erupted after a Blue Jackets charge to the Penguins’ net at the second-period horn.
It carried over into the corner to Marc-Andre Fleury’s right, where Ian Cole and Brandon Dubinsky drew a crowd as they battled.
Once the combatants were separated, it was revealed Dubinsky had earned the only penalty (two for roughing at 20:00 of the second).
Columbus captain Nick Foligno wasn’t happy.
Columbus head coach John Tortorella wasn’t happy.
Wonder how they felt after Evgeni Malkin scored at 2:01 of the third for a 3-1 Penguins’ lead?
It wasn’t officially a power-play goal but it might as well have been.
Just like that, the momentum the Blue Jackets had generated through what had been their best period of the series had vanished.
And just like that, the hole from which the Blue Jackets would have to extricate themselves in the final 20 minutes of regulation had doubled in size.
And now the series deficit the Blue Jackets face has done the same.
It ended 4-1 on Friday night in front of another delirious sellout crowd at PPG Paints Arena.
But it didn’t end before Matt Calvert had assaulted Tom Kuhnhackl at center ice with a cross-check to the neck from behind in the final minute (Calvert’s stick snapped in the process), and then hit Kuhnhackl again for good measure with Kuhnhackl bent over and attempting to collect himself.
Did the Penguins get a break?
Or did Dubinsky earn the penalty that helped seal the Blue Jackets’ fate?
The Penguins maintained they didn’t know why Dubinsky was penalized and Cole wasn’t, and that they didn’t care.
“The referees are going to do their job, we’re going to do ours,” head coach Mike Sullivan offered.
Tortorella allowed that he never got an explanation.
“We didn’t even ask,” he said. “We’re not even going to get involved in it, we’re just going to play.”
As for the Calvert attack on Kuhnhackl and other such menacing gestures that characterized Game 2, especially at the end, “That’s playoff hockey,” Justin Schultz responded. “It’s intense out there.”
It might be more than that on Sunday night in Game 3 in Columbus.
But what resonates most from Games 1 and 2 _ other than the Blue Jackets having scored two goals in the two games and three in three games in Pittsburgh since April 4 _ is that the Penguins appear ready to handle anything Columbus might be able to throw at them in an effort to disrupt and distract.
And if the Blue Jackets don’t have that going for them, what do they have?
Sullivan has been molding such a team since his arrival last season.
And after last postseason’s run to the Cup, the Penguins appear to have wholeheartedly bought into the concept.
“We can’t win the game after the whistle,” Sullivan insisted. “Our team’s at its best when we play between the whistles and we play hard.
“That’s what I like about this group we have. They’re focused, they’re determined and we’ll just keep playing the game that we’re trying to play.”
That’s a game for which the Blue Jackets have yet to find an appropriate plan.