COLUMBUS, Ohio – It was Evgeni Malkin's game — until the Columbus Blue Jackets elbowed their way into the picture.
Malkin had a hat trick and the Pittsburgh Penguins almost blew a four-goal lead before holding off the Columbus Blue Jackets 4-3 Monday night to clinch their first-round playoff series in six games.
"The last two games were our best of the year, but they certainly made a push, scored goals and kept coming," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "We certainly understand the importance of closing out a game. But the bottom line is we got our third and fourth wins here in Games 5 and 6. And we get to move on."
Pittsburgh awaits the winner of the New York-Philadelphia series, with the Rangers leading 3-2 going into Tuesday night's Game 6. It appeared the Penguins were ready to board their charter midway through the third period before the Blue Jackets turned the game upside down.
Malkin staked them to a big lead that barely stood up.
"Going into the second round now, you feel so much better when you have confidence," said Malkin, who had not scored a goal in his last nine playoff games dating to last season. "I hope in the next round I can score more."
Closer to making tee times than thinking about a Game 7, the Blue Jackets scored three times in a 4:52 span of the third period to turn up the pressure on the Penguins, an overwhelming favorite before the series got underway.
"We wanted to leave it all out there," said Nick Foligno, who won Game 4 with an overtime wrister and then redirected a shot into the net to draw Columbus — down 4-0 midway through the final period — to within a goal with 4:47 left. "We're a proud team, a team that's done a lot of good things all year. And we didn't want to leave here on a bad note."
Fedor Tyutin, Artem Anisimov and Foligno scored for Columbus to energize a crowd of 19,189 that stood and roared throughout the final minutes.
"It wasn't easy seeing 1, 2, 3 go in like that," said Penguins star Sidney Crosby, who went without a goal and had a plus/minus of -2 for the series. "Everyone just knew the last few minutes we had to find a way to keep it out."
The Penguins were hard pressed to fight off the aggressive Blue Jackets after goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, who had 24 saves, was pulled for an extra attacker with under 2 minutes left.
Matt Calvert had been just wide with a potential tying shot with 3:30 left. Brandon Dubinsky's wraparound was deflected by goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.
"It was a good test," said Fleury, who was criticized by Penguins fans after early playoff exits in recent years.
Fleury ended up with 24 saves. Brandon Sutter also scored a goal before leaving with an injury, and Matt Niskanen had two assists for the Penguins, who became the first team in the series to score first and win — but barely.
Malkin hadn't scored in the first 332:52 of the series, then scored three times in a span of 26:11.
"I could see it coming in the morning skate," teammate James Neal said. "His shot was going into the back of the net."
The Blue Jackets, one of the NHL's youngest teams, looked hopeless until Tyutin's shot from the right dot ended Fleury's shutout streak at 97:26, since the Blue Jackets took a 1-0 lead in the first period of Game 5. Then Anisimov scored from the left point and Foligno redirected Tyutin's shot to cut the lead to 4-3.
Pittsburgh survived, all right, although mainstays Sutter and Joe Vitale were injured during the game and did not return.
But that's a worry for another day. Advancing was the big thing.
"We've got a rivalry going here with the Jackets," Bylsma said. "They gave us everything we could handle and it was a nice series for them. That was an extremely tough first-round opponent."