While they certainly didn’t make it easy, the Pittsburgh Penguins finally clinched a first-round series win against Columbus last night, defeating the Blue Jackets 4-3, taking the series four games to two.
And while it took a little longer than most Penguins fans would have liked, Pittsburgh got the job done nonetheless.
So who were the biggest contributors to the Pen’s first-round victory? Let’s break it down.
Honorable Mention: Matt Niskanen, Jussi Jokinen, and Evgeni Malkin
#3 – Paul Martin:
Averaging close to 28 minutes a night, Martin played more ice time per game than anyone else on the Penguins’ roster, including captain Sidney Crosby.
That’s an astounding fact in and of itself, however when you think about it, it’s not all that surprising.
After all, not only is he a top-pairing defenseman at even strength, he also quarterbacks the Pittsburgh power-play from the point, and, along with Brooks Orpik, makes up the Pens’ number one shutdown duo. From killing penalties to running the point with the man advantage, Martin did it all.
Not to mention that he and teammate Matt Niskanen lead all NHL defenseman in playoff points with 8, while Martin leads all skaters in +/- with +7.
Despite an enormous, enormous gaffe that cost the Penguins game four, Fleury was pretty strong in net for the Penguins.
A quick look at the stats might say otherwise, however Fleury’s .908 save percentage is as much of an indication of the defense playing in front of him as it is his level of play.
Fleury made some key saves when Pittsburgh needed them most, turning away more than a few huge breakaway opportunities for Columbus. And while he still let in a few softies, he made up for it in ways he was seemingly unable to in year’s past.
It sounds cynical, but MAF gets the second star largely because he didn’t screw up past the point of repair. Like I said, his stats certainly suggest room for improvement, but I’d be hard pressed to find a goalie that looks good playing behind a defense that gives up three short-handed goals in one series to Columbus.
Maybe it’s a result of low expectations, but the Flower was better than a lot of people expected him to be, especially after game four.
#1 – Brandon Sutter:
Going into the postseason, many were citing Sutter as one of a few key pieces that needed to step up in a big way if the Penguins were to have any chance of making a serious run at the Cup.
And while he had just an OK season in the regular season, Sutter was the best player on the ice for Pittsburgh in round one against Columbus.
With two goals and three assists, Sutter was a catalyst offensively for Pittsburgh, eclipsing his point total in 15 playoff games last year in just six this season.
He won over 50% of his face-offs, and his +6 rating led all forwards in the series. If they gave out individual awards for every playoff round, Sutter would have won the Selke.
And if you need any more convincing as to how valuable Sutter was to his team against Columbus, look no further than their play without him in the lineup.
In last night’s game six, Pittsburgh was siting pretty with a 4-0 lead with just over ten minutes oft in the third period when Sutter went down with an apparent ankle injury. He did not return.
A few minutes later, the Pens gave up a short-handed goal to make it 4-1, and suddenly the floodgates opened up in Columbus, who added two more goals in the span of about six minutes to make it 4-3, before the Pens were finally able to cling on for dear life and close out the game.
As much as his offense provided a spark for the Pens, it was his defense that allowed the Penguins room to perform all sorts of plastic surgery on their lines midway through the game.
Sutter was at the center of trade talk at the deadline but has responded beautifully ever since, something the penguins desperately needed him to do.