PITTSBURGH — Marc-Andre Fleury spent the regular season saying all the right things — and just as importantly, doing all the right things — while watching Matt Murray take his job.
It wasn’t easy. Yet the goalie with more wins than any other in the history of the Pittsburgh Penguins handled the demotion with grace. Never complaining about playing time and doing his best to help the 22-year-old Murray adjust to the grind during his first full season in the NHL.
The Penguins held on to Fleury at the trade deadline, keenly aware that the time may come when they would need him to coax a little more magic out of his No. 29 sweater.
That time arrived Wednesday night against Columbus. When Murray tweaked something during pregame warmups , Fleury found himself starting. And for the next couple of hours, it seemed like old times.
Fleury withstood an early push by the Blue Jackets and stopped 31 shots in all as the Penguins opened their Stanley Cup title defence with a 3-1 victory. Game 2 is Friday night in Pittsburgh.
"It felt like it’s been awhile," Fleury said. "I was a little nervous at the beginning maybe from not expecting it."
Funny, didn’t look like it. The Blue Jackets peppered Fleury during a one-sided first period, throwing 16 shots his way while Fleury’s teammates mustered just three at the other end of the ice. Fleury stopped them all, and when Pittsburgh finally got it going in the second period, the Blue Jackets couldn’t keep pace.
Phil Kessel, Nick Bonino and Bryan Rust scored in the second, with Evgeni Malkin assisting on Rust and Kessel’s goals in his first game back after missing the final three weeks of the regular season with an upper-body injury. It was a surge reminiscent of Pittsburgh’s sprint to a fourth Cup last spring. Yet it was a push made possible only by Fleury’s hot start.
"When he play like this it’s much easier for us," Malkin said. "He’s just an amazing player and I hope he plays the next game same."
There’s a chance Malkin won’t have to wait long. Murray will be re-evaluated on Thursday. Considering how comfortable Fleury looked while tying a club record by making his 101st playoff appearance, there’s no hurry to rush Murray back out there.
The Blue Jackets, making just their third playoff appearance in franchise history, insisted they wouldn’t be overcome by the stakes or the stage. For a long stretch at the start, they weren’t. Columbus hogged the puck during the first period but was unable to create the kind of traffic in front of Fleury that could produce a goal. The Penguins blocked 22 shots in front of him and kept his crease clear.
"We’re going to have to find a way to get in on the inside and bang away and create more offence," Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella said.
It took all of four minutes of the second period for Pittsburgh to flip momentum completely.
Rust finished a pretty sequence in which Malkin fed the puck to Kessel, who delicately kicked it to Rust in the slot. Rust ripped a shot over Bobrovsky’s stick 1:15 into the second to give the Penguins the lead. Kessel doubled the advantage 150 seconds later, biding his time in the left circle on the power play then threading a wrist shot over Bobrovsky’s glove to make it 2-0.
"After the second one, we lost ourselves a little bit," Tortorella said.
Bonino camped in front of the Columbus net then pounded home a rebound on the doorstep 16:25 into the second to push Pittsburgh’s advantage to three goals and the Blue Jackets never recovered.
After overwhelming the Penguins at the start, Columbus managed just 16 shots over the final two periods and never really came close to threatening as a matchup between the teams that finished with the second and fourth best records in the NHL looked one-sided.
"I think they put us on our heels a little bit, but I think we had a pretty good third period," Columbus forward Brandon Dubinsky said. "Something to build on for Game 2. It’s a marathon, it’s not a sprint."
NOTES: Malkin’s two assists moved him past Jaromir Jagr and into third-place on the franchise’s list for playoff assists (83), trailing only Sidney Crosby and Mario Lemieux. … Pittsburgh D Ron Hainsey skated 18:42 in his playoff debut after appearing in a record 907 regular season games without making an post-season appearance. … The Penguins went 1 for 3 on the power play. The Blue Jackets were 0 for 2. … Columbus rookie D Zach Werenski played 25:19 after sitting out the last four games of the regular season with an injury.