PITTSBURGH (AP) — Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 31 shots in a surprise start in place of injured Matt Murray and the Pittsburgh Penguins opened their Stanley Cup title defense with a 3-1 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday night.
Murray was scheduled to get the nod in the playoff opener but was a late scratch after suffering a lower-body injury during warm-ups. Fleury withstood an early push by Columbus, and the Penguins responded by pulling away from the untested Blue Jackets.
Phil Kessel had a goal and an assist for Pittsburgh. Nick Bonino and Bryan Rust also scored, and Evgeni Malkin assisted on Rust and Kessel’s goals in his first game back after missing the final three weeks of the regular season because of an upper-body injury.
Matt Calvert scored for Columbus in the third period, and Sergei Bobrovsky made 26 saves.
Game 2 is Friday night in Pittsburgh.
Fleury spent most of the season gracefully receding into the background while Murray took over as the No. 1 goalie after helping lead the Penguins to a championship last spring.
Rather than deal the career wins leader in franchise history at the trade deadline for depth elsewhere, Pittsburgh general manager Jim Rutherford held on to Fleury, confident the club would need Fleury’s services at some point.
That point came about 20 minutes before the opening faceoff, when Murray appeared to tweak something while stretching to make a save during his usual pregame routine. Enter Fleury, who skated onto the PPG Paints Arena ice to a massive ovation then spent the first period singlehandedly keeping the uncharacteristically flat Penguins in it.
The Blue Jackets, making just their third playoff appearance in franchise history, insisted they wouldn’t be overcome by the stakes or the stage. For a long stretch at the start, they weren’t. Columbus outshot Pittsburgh 16-3 in first period, peppering Fleury and hogging the puck.
Fleury’s steady play helped Pittsburgh survive and it took just 3:45 for the Penguins to reassert their dominance.
Rust finished a pretty sequence in which Malkin fed the puck to Kessel, who delicately kicked it to Rust in the slot. Rust ripped a shot over Bobrovsky’s stick 1:15 into the second to give the Penguins the lead. Kessel doubled the advantage 150 seconds later, biding his time in the left circle on the power play then threading a wrist shot over Bobrovsky’s glove to make it 2-0.
Bonino camped in front of the Columbus net then pounded home a shot on the doorstep 16:25 into the second to push Pittsburgh’s advantage to three goals and the Blue Jackets never recovered.
After overwhelming the Penguins at the start, Columbus managed just 16 shots over the final two periods and never really came close to threatening as a matchup between the teams that finished with the second and fourth best records in the NHL looked one-sided.
NOTES: Malkin’s two assists moved him past Jaromir Jagr and into third-place on the franchise’s list for playoff assists (83), trailing only Sidney Crosby and Mario Lemieux. … Pittsburgh D Ron Hainsey skated 18:42 in his playoff debut after appearing in a record 907 regular season games without making an postseason appearance. … The Penguins went 1 for 3 on the power play. The Blue Jackets were 0 for 2. … Columbus fell to 2-9 all-time in the playoffs and 1-5 on the road. … Fleury tied Tom Barrasso’s club record for career playoff appearances (101).
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