PITTSBURGH — Mike Sullivan’s decision to throw together Sidney Crosby, Conor Sheary and Jake Guentzel was two parts pragmatism and one part experimentation.
The Pittsburgh Penguins were banged up in mid-March and needed a spark. So Sullivan put the best player in the game alongside a couple of 20-somethings who make up for in energy and intelligence what they lack in pedigree.
"Sid and the Kids" are growing up on the job. And the defending Stanley Cup champions are only too happy to ride the wave.
Crosby had a goal and two assists, Guentzel scored the first NHL playoff goal. and Sheary added a brilliant secondary assist as the Penguins rolled by the frustrated Columbus Blue Jackets 4-1 on Friday in Game 2 of the first-round series.
"When they’re in that offensive zone, they’re as dangerous an offensive line as there is in the game for me," Sullivan said.
Sure looked like it. Sheary’s determination set up Crosby’s 50th playoff goal to give Pittsburgh a first-period lead and Guentzel buried a cross-ice pass from Crosby to put the Penguins ahead near the game’s midpoint as the Penguins went up 2-0 in the best-of-seven series. Game 3 is Sunday night in Columbus.
"I’m trying to keep up with them for the most part," Crosby said. "They’re pretty fast and they have a lot of skill. I think we’re just trying to read off each other. This time of year there’s not a lot of time and space but tonight we were able to get a good number of chances. It was good to see some go in."
Evgeni Malkin scored his first goal of the post-season, and Patric Hornqvist pushed in an empty-net goal. Marc-Andre Fleury finished with 39 saves while filling in for the injured Matt Murray, and received plenty of help. The Penguins blocked 23 shots before they even got to their goaltender.
Brandon Saad scored for Columbus , and Sergei Bobrovsky stopped 28 shots but the Blue Jackets continued to have issues offensively. Columbus has scored more than three goals just once in its last 13 games.
"We played the game we wanted to, we just weren’t able to bury our chances and they did," Blue Jackets forward Brandon Dubinsky said.
Fleury admitted to some jitters when he was suddenly thrust into the lineup with barely 20 minutes to prepare after Murray was a late scratch before Game 1 with a lower-body injury — and responded with a 31-save masterpiece. Murray is out indefinitely, returning Fleury to the spot he held for a decade while becoming the winningest goaltender in franchise history.
His club-record 102nd playoff appearance looked an awful lot like his 101st, when he held the Blue Jackets in check during an early push then waited for NHL’s best offence to find its footing.
The awakening came earlier than in the series opener. Crosby turned Pittsburgh’s first shot of the game into a 1-0 lead , though he had the easy part: settling the puck at the doorstep then flipping it home. Sheary did the hard part: poke-checking the puck away from Bobrovsky behind the Columbus net and getting it to Guentzel in front. Guentzel then slid it to Crosby and the Penguins were in control.
"I thought if I could get on (Bobrovsky) quick he’d have to make a quick decision," Sheary said. "He eventually just held onto it and I was able to create a turnover."
Saad gave the Blue Jackets a jolt when his wrist shot from the left circle zipped over Fleury’s glove 7 minutes into the second.
The momentum lasted all of 51 seconds, or as along as it took for Crosby and Guentzel to break in 2-on-1. Crosby fed it to Guentzel and the 22-year-old rookie opted not to give it to back to the league’s leading goal scorer and instead sent a shot that Bobrovsky’s outstretched left pad couldn’t reach and suddenly the Penguins were back in front.
Columbus, one of the more physical teams in the league, briefly lost its cool late. Forward Matt Calvert cross-checked Pittsburgh’s Tom Kuhnhackl across the head with the game well out of reach late. Boone Jenner and Scott Harrington received misconduct penalties after the final horn.
Not that it bothered coach John Tortorella, who has 48 hours to revive the Blue Jackets’ chances of winning its first playoff series in franchise history.
"I don’t have one (complaint) about the team," Tortorella said. "Not one. Anxious to get our suits on again and get back in the building."
NOTES: The Penguins wore a decal on their helmets that featured the logo of the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers to honour longtime Steelers owner Dan Rooney, who passed away on Thursday at age 84. The team also held a pregame moment of silence and put together a video tribute that aired in the arena during a first-period stoppage in play. … Fleury’s 55 playoff wins are one behind Tom Barrasso for the most in team history.