PITTSBURGH – The toughest NHL ticket in the USA is the Console Energy Center (see inside and outside photos below), as the Penguins have sold out every regular season and playoff game since February 2007.
But Wednesday Penguins fans were the first to see their team embark on NHL playoff action, which opens in eight cities between Wednesday and Friday. The league’s best scorer Sidney Crosby (#87 in photo above) and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury weathered the Columbus storm as the Penguins scored a third period go-ahead goal to take game one 4-3.
All three games Tuesday were decided by just one goal.
The Penguins were just eight points worse than the best team in the league (Boston Bruins 117 points), but were outplayed for most of the first two periods against the 14th best team in the league, the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Canadians (9th best record in league) pulled a minor upset at Tampa Bay (8th), and the heavily favored Anaheim Ducks (2nd) fell asleep after a 4-0 lead but held on beat the Dallas Stars (16th best).
Crosby scored 17 more points than any other NHL player this season (104 to 87), behind a league-high 68 assists and 36 goals (the latter figure was seventh best in the NHL). Crosby also just missed being one of only three players to win 1000 face offs, demanding the full attention of defenders and fans alike whenever he sets up near the Blue Jackets goal as in the picture above. Fans erupted in anger when his head appeared to snap back after contact in front of the goal during stoppage–perhaps an exaggerated reaction by a player who seems to effortlessly continue to skate and weave toward the goal with two defenders draped on his back at times.
However, the hopes for the Stanley Cup here were improved by the player to whom Crosby deferred the 1st line start Wednesday–Evgeni Malkin–who looked completely recovered from the foot injury that cost him the last 11 regular season games and looked to be at 100 percent.
Playoff electricity flowed through the city during the day, as many walked the streets in Penguin gear. The enthusiasm continued through the light show (photo below), but it was the visiting Blue Jackets who outplayed the Penguins for most of the first two periods–including a barrage of early pressure that culminated in Jack Johnson’s close range goal just over six minutes into the game.
The low point for the home fans came when the Blue Jackets Derek MacKenzie scored a short-handed goal to open the second period that put the Blue Jackets up 3-1. However, the thousands of No. 87 jerseys in the arena–most importantly the one on the actual Sidney Crosby—kept the Penguins fans from despair. Crosby misplayed a couple of pucks, and was not the best Penguin on the ice Wednesday, but he started a run that resulted in the Penguins scoring the second of two goals in less than two minutes after falling behind 3-1. The top player of the evening, Brandon Sutter, scored the only goal of the third period for a 4-3 win.
Many of the fans who seemed to want Marc-Andre Fleury to leave town or retire last season instead chanted “Fleury! Fleury!” after the goalie thwarted many threats. On my flight out of Pittsburgh early Thursday everyone in Penguins gear insisted they had always been a Fleury fan. Wednesday he allowed a goal on only one of four Columbus power plays, as the Blue Jackets lost despite outshooting the Penguins 34-32.
The playoffs open Thursday in New York (Rangers), St. Louis, Colorado and San Jose, while Boston has to wait until Friday for their Game 1 against Detroit. However, the Penguins Game 2 ticket Saturday is the toughest NHL playoff ticket to get (fewer than 600 left with two days to go) meaning they are almost certain to extend their sellout streak. A half dozen Canadian teams have also sold out more than 300 consecutive NHL games.