The Blue Jackets win streak is now at six games after they won their third straight overtime contest, as well as their third straight divisional matchup.
Ryan Johansen and Cam Atkinson scored in the shootout for Columbus and Sergei Bobrovsky stuffed Brandon Sutter’s final attempt in the teams’ first meeting since Game 6 of last year’s post-season series wrapped up at Nationwide Arena. About eight months later, there was no love lost between these two.
The 2013-14 divisional realignment, the close proximity of the two cities, and last year’s back-and-forth playoff series has helped to mold Penguins-Blue Jackets into a pretty heated rivalry. And in case you thought that rivalry was some sort of media construction, the two teams confirmed on Saturday night that they flat-out don’t like each other.
Things came to a boiling point at 15:13 of the first period when Steve Downie and Matt Calvert jabbed each other on a neutral zone draw, Brandon Dubinsky took a run at Downie on the ensuing play, and thus, a pair of fights broke out. Jordan Leopold squared off for the first time in his 672-game NHL career, while Downie scuffled with Dalton Prout. Downie and Dubinsky would meet up again to fight in the second period.
This game featured physicality, scoring, great penalty killing, two third-period comebacks and animosity in the stands between the 5th Line and the Penguins fans in attendance. This pairing has the makings for one of the league’s better bad-blood battles.
A PHYSICAL TONE
The Blue Jackets had averaged approximately 29 hits per game coming into Saturday night’s contest, good for fifth-most in the league. Against the Penguins, a team playing the second of back-to-back nights, they had 29 after the first two periods.
“That was our mindset," Atkinson said. "We know what it’s like to play back-to-back games. We did it the whole month of November. We wanted to wear them down and we did.”
Jack Johnson got things rolling on an early penalty kill when he launched Brandon Sutter into the end boards. That scrappy play continued throughout the night, with the fourth line bringing considerable energy, and David Savard (eight hits) and Prout rattling the glass to keep the Penguins attack quiet.
The physical element certainly opened up the Blue Jackets’ neutral zone transition game, as Columbus had five odd-man rushes in the first period alone. Boone Jenner managed to slip behind the defense as well, leading to an eventual penalty shot that tied the game for the Jackets in the third.
The sandpaper that exists to this matchup, along with the playoff atmosphere that players admitted to feeling, may have added motivation to the games physical edge. But the ground-and-pound approach for Columbus was largely effective in keeping the Penguins at bay until the final few shifts of the third.
JACK OF ALL TRADES
Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards said earlier this season that Johnson has the ability to take over the game when he's physically engaged. That was during a time when Johnson was looking for consistency in his game. Johnson’s game has been much improved in recent weeks, but Saturday night he was arguably the game’s best player.
“He played close to 30 minutes, and that says a lot right there,” said Richards, mentioning that the hit on Sutter stood out in particular. “It’s true with anybody, that if you add that physical edge every other aspect of your game is better because of that intensity and focus. And Jack can take over a game. He can shut guys down in the corners and along the walls. He’s a great skater, and once he gets his claws on you, you’re done.”
Johnson woke up the building with his hit on Sutter, but he was far from done. He gave the Blue Jackets a temporary lead late in the third when he jumped into the rush and fired a laser over the shoulder of Thomas Greiss. Later, with the Jackets killing a penalty in overtime, Patric Hornqvist found himself alone in front with the game on his stick. Johnson came flying over, knocked Hornqvist off his feet without a shot, and cleared the zone.
“When he’s playing like that, he’s one of the best players in the league defensively,” said Nick Foligno, who scored his team-leading 14th goal of the season. “With his strength and speed he really has all the facets of a really good hockey player.”