Penguins stick with it against Jackets

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PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Penguins spent the first half chasing Game 1 of the 2014 playoffs, conjuring up images of last spring's series loss to the Boston Bruins.

But the Penguins finally caught up to the game, and the result was a 4-3 victory over the plucky Columbus Blue Jackets.

Now it falls to a Columbus team that is new to the business of playoff hockey to ensure it doesn't end up chasing the entire series against the more talented, more experienced Penguins.

In spite of trailing 1-0 and 3-1, the Penguins rallied for the win on a hard Brandon Sutter wrist shot midway through the third period. It was the only time in the game the Penguins led, which is kind of how the playoffs work if you're good.

The victory ended the Penguins' four-game playoff losing streak dating back to last year's Eastern Conference final against the Bruins, when they were swept, scoring just two goals in a series loss that in some ways still hangs over this team.

For much of Wednesday's Eastern Conference quarterfinal opener, you wondered whether the streak would go to five.

The Blue Jackets used their speed and took advantage of Pittsburgh's miscues to score first, with Jack Johnson jumping into the play and putting home a nice Brandon Dubinsky pass before the first period reached the midpoint.

After the Penguins knotted the game at 1-1, the Blue Jackets opened up a two-goal lead with a goal late in the first and another early in the second, a short-handed marker by Derek MacKenzie.

For a moment, all of the wondering about the Penguins' psyche, the questioning of whether they are still a Cup contender in spite of their talent and the thinking that they were missing some crucial part of their former championship DNA bubbled to the surface.

The sold-out Consol Energy Center was stunned into silence.

But that silence lasted less than a minute as Beau Bennett cut the deficit to 3-2 with a power-play goal and, less than a minute later, Matt Niskanen tied it at 3-3 with another man-advantage marker.

"It was good for everyone to stick with it," Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby said.

"It felt like we probably had more chances in the second half," he added. "I don't feel like [we] sat back at 3-3. I thought we generated some good chances.

"I think those two goals that quickly [to tie the game at 3-3] really allowed us to kind of get settled and really play the rest of the game the way we wanted to."

The storylines in this series have been clearly identified.

Where are the Penguins five years after winning the Stanley Cup in 2009? Is some sort of window closing on this talented squad?

On the other side of the ice, what kind of challenge can the Blue Jackets mount as they take part in in the playoffs for just the second time in franchise history with a largely inexperienced squad that included 11 players on Wednesday night taking part in their first NHL playoff game?

"They've [Penguins] been through this. That's a team that's won over there. They answered on their power play. Their power play's been good for them all year. It gave them life. It got them back in the hockey game," said former Penguin Mark Letestu, who was traded to Columbus in the fall of 2011.

"This is a learning experience. It's a good team -- you get a 3-1 lead in their building, get a power-play goal, a short-handed goal, that's got to give you some momentum. But [we] took two penalties and they capitalized. Again, that's a team that's won. They know what it takes. We'll probably learn from that," said Letestu, who scored the Blue Jackets' second goal, a man-advantage marker with 2:02 left in the first.

It is a fine line this Blue Jackets team walks now.

Their inexperience is what it is. They must work diligently to keep it from becoming a defining element in how this series is decided, or more to the point, they must guard against letting their lack of experience become a fallback position in explaining why things went wrong.

Coach Todd Richards acknowledged before Wednesday's game that there was an element of the unknown confronting his squad.

"I think there was a lot of anticipation of what's going to happen and what's the game going to be like, what's the atmosphere, what's the crowd, playing against a very good team, and sometimes that anticipation can be draining," Richards said.

"I'm hoping that we got our feet wet now, we know what to expect, we know what the environment's going to be like."

But Richards was quick to try to quash the notion that the Blue Jackets are merely here to take notes for a test that will be administered in the future.

"It is learning. But we're here to win. And that's the big thing. The learning is through the process, but we aren't here just to go to school. Our guys are competitive. I know that they believe. So we're here to win. The learning comes through the experiences, and that's what I take away from it. There's disappointment in losing, because we all come in here expecting win and it didn't happen," Richards said.

The Blue Jackets departed Pittsburgh for the short trip back home after Wednesday's game and will work out in Columbus before returning for Game 2 on Saturday night.

There is much to be pleased about.

They took their first lead in a playoff game.

They outhit the Penguins 48-27.

Dubinsky was a thorn in Crosby's side much of the night, and Boone Jenner seemed to get under  Evgeni Malkin's skin a number of times.

But unless those elements can be built upon to come up with a way to be at least one goal better than Pittsburgh on Saturday, they will have little meaning.

"I don't think that they surprised us at all, so I'm not sure if we learned anything other than what we know already, which is they got a good team and they're going to make you pay for taking penalties and having turnovers," Dubinsky said.

"I thought our compete level was good. We've got to continue to build on it. The games are just going to get harder, they're going to get tougher, and we just got to be prepared for it. Like I said all year, I like our group, I like our character, our resilience. I know our guys will be prepared and ready on Saturday."

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