COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Penguins allowed a goal in the first 11 secondsand three goals in seven minutes at a hostile Nationwide Arena in Game 3 of the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs on Sunday.
The Blue Jackets had a commanding 3-1 lead at that point. How did that make Pittsburghcoach Mike Sullivan feel?
"I thought it hadbeen our best start to the series," he said. "It was hands-down our best first period. The score didn't indicate that, but we really liked a lot of the first period."
Really? That helps explain how the defending Stanley Cup championsoutlasted the Blue Jackets 5-4 in an overtime victory to take a 3-0 lead series. A hat trick by Jake Guentzel, who scored the game-winner in overtime, didn't hurt. It's about one word here.
Response. Every time the Blue Jackets took the momentum, the Penguins had one. That is the difference in this series between the Eastern Conference rivals. Sullivan saw itin the first period, believe it or not.
"Some of the goals didn't go our way early on but we responded the right way," Sullivan said. "That's such an important aspect of our group, is our ability to respond and react the right way."
The Blue Jackets —who won both their home meetings against the Penguins in the regular season — brought their ‘A' game to start. Cam Atkinson scored in11 seconds andagain on an unassisted goalafter Guentzel knotted the score at 1-1. Zach Werenski's goal increased Columbus' lead to 3-1 with a slap-shot. There's that 3-1 lead.
Yet Sidney Crosby, like Sullivan, liked what he was seeing.
"Just chances," Crosby said. "In the second half of that first period we got some really good chances and we were down, but it felt like we could've easily tied it up. It doesn't mean everything's great, but it built some momentum in the second."
Crosby notched two more assists, giving him four in the last two games. In seven playoff games against the Blue Jackets, Crosby has eight total: That's a major factor in the series.
"These guys have a certain mindset that really is contagious within the group and it starts with Sid," Sullivan said. "But it doesn't just end there. I think it downs to the group with our veteran guys."
Center Evgeni Malkin got in on theact with two assists to Bryan Rust in the second period. One of those goals came when a puck bloodied Werenski's face but play wasn't stopped. It was a break the Blue Jackets needed, because the Penguins again responded at the right time.
They also settled into the game. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury—who limited the Blue Jackets to two goals in the first two games — settled down, too. Guentzel scored the go-ahead goal at 11:48 in the third period.
"When you're playing a goalie like (Sergei) Bobrovsky you have to get your shots off quick," Guentzel said. Itproved to be prophetic later.
Columbus blew a 3-1 lead —the popular phrase these days — but they tied the game on Brandon Dubinsky's goal at 15:11 to set up overtime.
This game,and the momentum of the series, hinged on who had the last response in overtime. Dubinsky hit the cross-bar. Pittsburgh's Justin Schultz hit the post. Then Crosby swiped the puck and passed to Guentzel, who made the most of his chance with the overtime game-winner.
"Jake is mature beyond his years," Sullivan said. "He's a real good player. I don't think the stage is too big. I think he's got a quiet confidence about him that's he's displayed from Day 1 since he's been part of the Penguins."
Now those Penguins appear to have a stranglehold on the series, and could close out the Blue Jackets on Tuesday night.
Once again, Sullivan doesn't quite see it that way.
"Game 4 is always the most difficult," hesaid. "They're a good team and they're a proud team and they're well-coached and we know that we are probably going to see their best game and that next game is going to be that much more important to play the game and do our best to get to our game as early and often as we can."