PITTSBURGH â€” The puck fluttered into the net and the Columbus Blue Jackets thrust their arms into the air, certain they had tied the Pittsburgh Penguins early in the third period of Game 5 of their first-round playoff series.
One problem. They weren’t the only ones with their arms up.
When an official waved off the goal and called Alex Wenneberg for interfering with Pittsburgh goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, the Penguins still had the lead and â€” even better â€” a power play.
Two minutes later, Sidney Crosby put the Penguins up two. Just 51 seconds after that, Scott Wilson extended the advantage to three. And just like that, the defending Stanley Cup champions were into the second round with a 5-2 victory Thursday night.
Pittsburgh will face the winner of the Toronto-Washington series in the conference semifinals starting next week.
“We had the opportunity last game to do it, and we didn’t,” Crosby said. “So it’s just kind of a relief to win it.”
Understandable considering the Penguins were faced with more than a few anxious moments after nearly letting a three-goal lead evaporate.
A series filled with wild momentum swings turned one last time when the tying score was nullified by the penalty, sending combustible Columbus coach John Tortorella into a rage. Crosby powered home a one-timer on the ensuing power play, and the Penguins were in control to stay.
“I am not talking about the play, stop trying and baiting me into it,” Tortorella said. “There’s no sense in me having a viewpoint on it. It happened.”
It also helped stop Columbus’ breakout season. The Blue Jackets posted a franchise-record 108 points, but they’re still searching for the first playoff series victory in team history after failing to keep the NHL’s highest-scoring team in check.
Bryan Rust scored twice for Pittsburgh and now has seven goals in nine career elimination games.
“As far as success in these games, I don’t know what’s going on,” Rust said.
Phil Kessel added his second of the playoffs and Marc-Andre Fleury had 49 saves in his club-record 57th playoff win. Heady territory for a player who expected to spend the playoffs as the backup to Matt Murray only to be given the starting assignment moments before Game 1 when Murray tweaked a lower-body injury. Fleury then spent the better part of five games fending off whatever the Blue Jackets threw his way, including 15 saves during a typically busy first period in Game 5, buying his teammates enough time to get it together.
“He had to make a ton of huge saves,” Crosby said. “They weren’t necessarily routine, either. He was tested a lot. We don’t like to have to make him work that hard. He was our best player.”
William Karlsson and Boone Jenner scored for the Blue Jackets, but Sergei Bobrovsky stopped just 27 of 32 shots to finish a forgettable series. The Russian led the NHL in goals-against average (2.06) and save percentage (.931) during the regular season, but couldn’t handle the Penguins, giving up 20 goals on 170 shots.
“They’ve got good players, a good team (and) they beat me,” Bobrovsky said. “So as I said, you learn from it and move on.”
Columbus avoided being swept with a spirited 5-4 win on Tuesday, extending the series by playing with the kind of desperation Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan insisted his team needed if it wanted to get some rest before the second round.
It’s a refrain Sullivan has preached repeatedly over the last couple weeks and once again, the Penguins didn’t listen.
And once again, they were able to get away with it thanks to Fleury. He withstood the early barrage and when the apparent tying goal in the third didn’t count, Pittsburgh responded immediately. It’s what champions tend to do.
“It’s never perfect out there by any stretch,” Sullivan said. “We love their compete level. We love their ability to respond to the adversity we face or the challenges we face throughout the course of a game, throughout the course of a series.”
The Penguins will get a few welcome days to rest before preparing for the next step as they try to become the first team in nearly 20 years to win back-to-back Cups. For the Blue Jackets, there’s the off-season to figure out how to close the gap with Pittsburgh.
“I’m proud of our club,” Tortorella said. “That’s not a 4-1 series. I’m not going to (complain) about it. They win.”
NOTES: Columbus F Nick Foligno was scratched following pregame warmups due to a lower-body injury. … Pittsburgh finished 5-0 at home against the Blue Jackets this season, never trailing in any of the five games. … Columbus went 1 for 3 on the power play. Pittsburgh was 2 for 4.
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Will Graves, The Associated Press