COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Every playoff series is a journey of self-discovery on some level, but it is even more so for young teams navigating playoff waters for the first time.
And so it was that the Columbus Blue Jackets wandered into Nationwide Arena in Columbus on Sunday morning for what was an optional on-ice workout and to meet with a small gaggle of reporters, the players confronting the reality of peering into the playoff abyss, most for the first time.
A to-and-fro series that has featured a bevy of blown leads and emotional charges on both sides was tilted once again in favor of the Pittsburgh Penguins after their 3-1 victory in Game 5 Saturday night in Pittsburgh.
It was a statement game for the Penguins, whose work ethic and compete level had been questioned by coach Dan Bylsma leading into the game. The Penguins put on a clinic at both ends of the ice, keeping the Blue Jackets from jamming the front of their net and launching 51 shots at Columbus' goal.
Now, no one is questioning the Blue Jackets' compete level. That has been at the heart of their success in this series and in a second-half charge to the team's second playoff berth in franchise history.
But what is at question is whether there is more for this young team to give in Game 6 or, more to the point, enough to give to force a Game 7 Wednesday night in Pittsburgh.
"To me, being better is just taking your game to another level," coach Todd Richards said Sunday. "And really all it is is a focus and an intensity. I don't think it's about X's and O's and changing that up and being better there. It's about being better and having an intensity and a focus that allows you to come out and execute and skate and play at another level. We've got to find that. I think we do have it. And we need it in Game 6."
The coach acknowledged there was disappointment after the Game 5 loss, mostly due to the fact the Blue Jackets squandered a fine performance by netminder Sergei Bobrovsky, who had his best game of the playoffs while making 48 saves in a losing effort.
The teams were tied 1-1 heading into the third period despite the Blue Jackets being badly outplayed in the second period. After Jussi Jokinen scored 6:16 into the final period, Columbus couldn't come up with a way to notch the equalizer before Kris Letang ended the drama with an empty-net goal in the final minute.
"It is an elimination game, but for me we've dealt with adversity all year," Richards said. "We've dealt with a lot of ups and downs. We've had games where maybe we haven't played our best or maybe the other team has just outplayed us, and we've responded the next game. So I'm looking at this as not necessarily an elimination game. I'm looking at it as a rebound game or a response game."
The Blue Jackets did get on the board first in Game 5, Boone Jenner continuing his strong spring with a power-play goal in the first period, but the Penguins were steadfast and dominated shots on goal and time of possession for the last 45 minutes or so of the game. It marked the fifth straight time in this series that the team that opened the scoring ended up losing the game.
"We can match it. We can be better," said forward R.J. Umberger. "It was definitely our worst performance. It wasn't that we were bad. We just, maybe we were flat or something, I don't know. I thought they made some adjustments, made it a little difficult for us to get sustained pressure in their D zone. Our chips and dumps, we weren't being able to get to them and they were breaking them out a lot cleaner than they have in the past."
One of the great playoff chestnuts is that in situations like this, players or entire teams will reflect and draw on similar experiences in the past. We saw it with Boston in 2011 when the Bruins overcame series deficits in the opening round and the Stanley Cup finals en route to a championship a year after blowing a 3-0 series lead against the Philadelphia Flyers.
So there is something to be said for the reality of teams using experience as a mental tool. The Penguins have been saying as much as the series has gone along -- how they can use what has happened to them in the past, both positive and negative, to have success in the here and now. The Blue Jackets have precious little of that kind of experience. Does it matter? We'll find out.
Brandon Dubinsky recalled being with the New York Rangers a couple of springs ago and falling behind 3-2 in a series against the Ottawa Senators in the first round. The Rangers came back to win that series, but it wasn't easy.
"We got down early in the game, but it's the will, the desperation," Dubinsky said. "You don't want your season to end. You want to keep going. You don't work so hard all summer long and all season long and the preseason and play 90 games, or whatever the amount is, to not come out and give your best effort and give yourself the best opportunity to win."
The former Ranger is a key figure on the ice and in the Blue Jackets' locker room in part because of his experience but also because of his play, mostly against Sidney Crosby, who is without a goal in the series.
"They have a good team, but part of it is what we did, or what we didn't do, I should say," Dubinsky said. "I got the question [Saturday] night, 'Was this the Pittsburgh team that you were expecting throughout the series?' Well, sure, it was the Pittsburgh team we were expecting throughout the series, but what Columbus team were they expecting throughout the series? We have done a lot of good things in the series, and I'll continue to say we believe and we have confidence in our room with what we have, and we have shown all season long we have been willing to take adversity in stride and be resilient and get back to where we wanted to be, and I expect tomorrow night to be no different."
If Saturday's game was the moment in which the two teams, so evenly matched through the first four games -- all decided by 4-3 scores -- diverged and the Metropolitan Division champion Penguins ultimately move on, there will be no shame in it for the Blue Jackets. They have revealed themselves to be a worthy opponent, and the future looks exceedingly bright for Richards and his crew. But no one with this Blue Jackets team is prepared to concede anything to anyone at this stage.
"Last hurrah?" Richards said. "To me, a last hurrah is last day of school or something like that, where you know it's finite, it's going to end. This isn't that. I mean, this is going in to win a hockey game. There's another game after that, and [we're] preparing for that game."