Experience, for one night, won over enthusiasm.
But the Pittsburgh Penguins, if they had a shred of doubt earlier Wednesday, realize now they’re in for a battle with a scrappy Columbus Blue Jackets club in their Eastern Conference quarterfinal.
The Penguins took the opener of the best-of-seven by a 4-3 score, but the three victories they now require to win the series won’t come easily.
Never mind the Jackets had a paltry total of 251 playoff games in the National Hockey League as opposed to the 1,154 gathered by the Penguins, who have still have a solid group from the team that won the Stanley Cup in 2009.
And it didn’t really matter that Sidney Crosby won the Art Ross Trophy for just the second time in his career. Crosby finished with one assist and was minus-2, and mostly was unable to make much of an impact in the offensive zone.
Nor that the Penguins beat the Blue Jackets in all five meetings during the regular season.
It was Brandon Sutter, who scored just 13 goals in 81 regular-season games, who sent the standing-room-only crowd of 18,646 at the Consol Energy Center home happy.
At 8:18 of the third period, Sutter snapped the puck under netminder Sergei Bobrovsky’s right arm after taking a pass from Beau Bennett on a 2-on-1.
That marked the first lead of the game for the Penguins, who were knocked around at every turn and didn’t really start winning puck battles until past the midway point of the game.
Much of the pressure heading into the series was on the shoulders of Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who has had trouble stopping the puck in the past two post-seasons.
But he made several good stops against the Blue Jackets, denying Matt Calvert on a semi-breakaway in the final minute of the second period and snaring an Artem Anisimov drive in the first.
Just under 200 feet away, Bobrovsky also did what he was supposed to do, kicking out a Jussi Jokinen shot as the Penguins pressed early in the third. There was some luck involved as well, as Penguins forward Brian Gibbons rang a shot off the post to Bobrovsky’s left.
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Jokinen, Bennett and Matt Niskanen also scored for the Penguins.
Jack Johnson, Mark Letestu and Derek MacKenzie scored or the Blue Jackets, playing just the fifth playoff game in franchise history.
The Jackets weren’t intimidated by the Penguins, but the resolve of the Pittsburgh side came through early in the second period.
Columbus led 2-1 after 20 minutes and appeared to be set to take over when MacKenzie scored an unassisted shorthanded goal 43 seconds into the second, giving the visitors a two-goal cushion.
But it was gone in a matter of minutes, thanks largely to the heads-up play of Niskanen.
Rarely does a team score on the same power play on which it has given up a shorthanded goal, but the Penguins managed to do it at 1:34 of the second. Bennett, moving through the slot, got his stick on a point shot by Niskanen to send the puck past Bobrovsky.
Less than a minute later, Johnson was called for interference, giving Pittsburgh another power play. And there was Niskanen setting up to Bobrovsky’s right — opposite from where he set up Bennett — and scoring with a low shot as Chris Kunitz provided a partial screen. That came at 2:19, just 10 seconds after Johnson went to the box and 45 seconds after Bennett’s goal.
Columbus took a 1-0 lead — the first lead in the franchise’s brief playoff history — at 6:20 of the first. Brandon Dubinsky made a smart move to turn Pittsburgh defenceman Paul Martin inside out, and then fed Johnson, whose second attempt on a backhand fooled Fleury.
Jokinen tied the game 1-1 at 17:13 after taking a pass from Malkin, but Letestu, on a power play, scored 45 seconds later to put the Jackets up 2-1.