For me, when Pittsburgh took a 2-0 series advantage, John Tortorella and his men from a little to the West headed South for good.
Moving forward in this dance through the playoffs, I haven’t any idea what will happen, or even if they will face Washington or Toronto.
No one knows if Matt Murray will be back.
Will Fleury continue to sparkle?
How will Sid and Geno keep managing?
Will Mike Sullivan remain as that pillar of wisdom behind the bench, seemingly making every correct decision?
There are a ton of questions that need to be answered as the Penguins move forward both in the short and long term.
But, Sunday night as the Penguins fought back from that early deficit against the Blue Jackets to take what is an insurmountable lead, one thing hit me really hard — there is no question about what this organization can become in the form of an offensive presence over the next few seasons.
It is scary.
It is downright alarming (in a good way) if you’re a Penguins fan.
I don’t need to bore you with the fine details of the merits of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, both among the top players in the game at this point, who have been atop that mantelpiece for more than a few seasons.
But, as we always visited the primary questions in the past, weren’t a few of the main ones this: Where is the supplemental offense going to come from with the Penguins? How are they going to complement Sid and Geno? Where’s that winger for Sid? Can this offense be more than their top-heavy stars?
It seems like the Penguins’ organization went a long way toward definitively answering all those questions, and who is to think this isn’t just a small glimpse of something enormous to come in the next few seasons?
Jake Guentzel became the first Penguins rookie in franchise history to record a playoff hat trick with his stellar play in Game 3 against the Blue Jackets. He’s found a home on one side of Crosby with the other side occupied by Conor Sheary, who at 24 is just starting to show what he can do in the NHL. That line has 11 points in three playoff games and since being pieced together there has been no better line in the league. And to think Crosby, at 29, is the eldest of the three is a scary thought looking into the future.
On that second line with Malkin and Phil Kessel is Bryan Rust who is just 24 and has a penchant for coming through when the games grow in consequence. Rust scores on average every 5.7 games in the regular season. In the playoffs, he has scored every 2.9 games. That’s a young player who knows how to get it done in crunch time.
Scott Wilson is just 24 and has performed admirably down the stretch and Tom Kuhnhackl is one year older (25) and has blended into the mix quite well, filling the void stylewise in a Chris Kunitz role.
When he’s played this season, have you thought that 24-year-old Josh Archibald has looked out of place at all? I know I haven’t.
And that’s not even seeing an infusion of lightning-quick 20-year-old Daniel Sprong, who has the potential to be as good as any of the forwards.
So, with the Blue Jackets series on the cusp of ending and the Stanley Cup Playoffs destined to continue for the Penguins, there is a lot to look forward to in the near future. No question. I’m looking forward to this playoff run.
Today, for some reason though, I also can’t get my mind away from just how electric this group has the potential to be on offense for years to come. It really is something.
Fleury Enjoying Opportunity To Lead Pens
Marc-Andre Fleury is the ultimate teammate. All he wants to do is contribute to the Pens' success in any way he can, and for the last calendar year, that took on somewhat of a different meaning for the franchise netminder.
It wasn't just about going in and winning games. It was, as former Pens head coach Herb Brooks once said, a lot about how "the name on the front (of the jersey) is a heck of a lot more important than the one on the back."
It all began late in the 2015-16 regular season. Fleury suffered a concussion and was supplanted by Matt Murray as the team's starting goalie during their Stanley Cup championship run. This regular season, Fleury had to adjust to a lot less playing time - going to 38 games played after usually starting in over 60 - while dealing with constant trade rumors.
And the entire time, Fleury remained the consummate professional and person, being a friend and mentor to Murray while still coming to the rink every day with a smile on his face.
But Fleury was called back into the starting role when Murray suffered an injury in warmups before Game 1 of the First Round against Columbus. Fleury displayed so much character and compete in the emergency nod, producing a phenomenal performance in the 3-1 Pens' win.
That was the first of three straight victories for Fleury, who has risen up the ranks in the team record books - establishing a franchise record for playoff games by a goaltender (103) while tying Tom Barrasso for playoff wins (56). And now that he's back being the guy for Pittsburgh, Fleury admitted he's having a blast.
"It is a lot of fun, especially that we're winning," said Fleury from the team hotel on Monday, an off-day for the Pens following their 5-4 overtime win in Game 3 on Sunday leading to a 3-0 series lead.
"It's fun to be part of it, to be contributing," he added. "It's a good feeling when you're a part of it and you win those games, win in overtime and get some good emotions there."
Right now, the emotions Fleury's feeling are all positive. No stress, no anxiety, none of the negative ones he felt at times throughout the season - particularly during those last couple of weeks heading into the trade deadline. He's not thinking about his future in Pittsburgh. He's focused on the present.
"When you're playing, when you're in the action, I think you don't have as much time to worry about other things," he said. "I just get ready for the next game, try to play good in that game and I just find you have less maybe down time thinking about stuff.
"This has been very joyful."
The only stress Fleury has felt this series has been on the ice, not off. And the best part is how he's handled it and overcome it - particularly after getting the emergency start in Game 1 and then responding to an early deficit in Game 3.
The Jackets scored off the opening faceoff to take a 1-0 lead just 11 seconds in, and built on that to give them a 3-1 lead heading into the first intermission. But Fleury continued to stay in the present, just thought about making the next save - including a game-changer in overtime that went off, fittingly enough, the helmet decorated with pictures and names of his beloved teammates throughout his career - and ended up backstopping his team to a comeback win.
"We've got to be able to put things behind us and get back to the game plan and stay focused and just compete, and I thought Marc might have been our best player at that last night," head coach Mike Sullivan said. "When goals go in early on a goaltender, it's easy for a guy to get rattled and I didn't think Marc did at all. I thought he was focused, I thought he competed extremely hard and stayed in the moment, and that's important, especially in that position."
Fleury had a fantastic response when talking about how he stayed focused in that situation.
"Take a deep breath, you know? Try to relax and maybe say a couple bad words then you can relax," he laughed.
Overall, he's satisfied with his play so far through the first three games of the series. But of course, being the teammate that he is, he deflected credit to his teammates.
"It's been good," he said. "I thought our team's been playing great in front of me too. It's a big help for me."
Zach Werenski gushes blood, Penguins score on controversial play
The NHL can be a cruel, unforgiving place. Such was the case on Sunday night, when Columbus Blue Jackets rookie defenseman Zach Werenski was busted open by a puck to the face, play continued and the Pittsburgh Penguins scored to tie Game 3 of their Metro Division semifinal.
Werenski was in front of Phil Kessel when the Penguins forward snapped the puck under his visor. The defenseman grabbed his face with his left glove and fell to the ice in agony.
Play continued. Kessel found Evgeni Malkin to the left of Blue Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, who then sent a pass across to forward Bryan Rust, who couldn’t handle it. Malkin had a second chance on the same play moments later, and Rust scored his second goal of the game with 6:35 left in the second period.
Now, back to the NHL being a cruel and unforgiving place: Rule 8.1 stipulates that “when a player is injured so that he cannot continue play or go to his bench, the play shall not be stopped until the injured player’s team has secured control of the puck. If the player’s team is in control of the puck at the time of the injury, play shall be stopped immediately unless his team is in a scoring position.”
As you can see, the Blue Jackets never secured control of the puck.
(As a New Jersey Devils fan, this rule is dear to my heart, as play continued in a Stanley Cup Final game in Detroit in 1995 after Paul Coffey was injured, and Jim Dowd scored the game-winning goal in Game 2.)
The officials probably got this one right, even if the rule book creates a little gray area. Werenski was able to get to his skates and head to the bench, so that gives the officials some cover here.
Werenski was able to return to the game, albeit with a face shield and a little battle damage.
Obviously, the best news is that a puck under his face-shield didn’t result in something catastrophic. Although Werenski didn’t skate at the start of overtime, perhaps due to the swelling.