The Blue Jackets hop on the turnpike after their 5-2 win in Philadelphia and will head west to Pittsburgh to battle the rival Penguins on Thursday night. It’s only the Jackets’ second game against the Penguins this season, and it’s their first visit to the Steel City since Game 5 in last year’s playoffs.
The Penguins are up near the top of the division as usual, but not in the comfortable driver’s seat that they are used to. The Penguins find themselves in second place, sandwiched between the upstart Islanders and the rolling Rangers, without the benefit of a tie-breaker against either opponent. And don’t look now, but moving closer in the rear-view mirror are the Washington Capitals, currently in fourth place but a point back of Pittsburgh and coming off a 3-1 road win Tuesday night at CONSOL Energy Center. In a division where no one seems to lose lately, the Penguins are 5-4-1 in their last 10 games.
Of course, the sky is hardly falling in Pittsburgh. They’re in playoff position and they have arguably the two best players in the world. Sidney Crosby’s 58 points (19-39-58) rank seventh in the league in only 53 games, while Evgeni Malkin ranks 16th with 53 points (21-32-53) in only 52 games. David Perron’s addition has been just what the doctor ordered for both team and player, and Chris Kunitz and Patric Hornqvist have had productive seasons. The Penguins have solid depth scoring with eight players in double figures, a list that includes seven forwards and defenseman Kris Letang.
Most importantly for the Penguins has been their goaltending, especially entering a time of year where that position is scrutinized more than any other. Marc-Andre Fleury is in the midst of one of the best seasons of his career; he's seventh in the league with 26 wins, fifth in save percentage (.924) and fifth in goals-against average (2.18). Those are easily the best marks of his career, while his league-leading eight shutouts is a Penguins record. Fleury hasn’t given up more than two goals in his last five starts.
As they have in the past few years, the Penguins are battling injuries. They remain without Pascal Dupuis and Olli Maatta for the remainder of the season, and defenseman Christian Ehrhoff has missed nine straight games with a concussion.
The Blue Jackets played one of their more entertaining games this season against the Penguins at Nationwide Arena on Dec. 13, a 4-3 shoot-out win. It was the Jackets’ sixth straight win, as well as their third straight win in overtime or the shootout. That streak of consecutive OT/SO games would eventually reach six straight games.
Nick Foligno opened the scoring with a slam-dunk power play goal just three minutes into the first period. Blake Comeau got the Penguins on the board late in the second with a sharp-angled wrister. Special teams took hold in the third, with a Letang short-handed goal answered by a Boone Jenner penalty shot goal. Jack Johnson’s go-ahead score at 17:49 looked like the potential winner until Letang’s second of the period tied it with 11 seconds remaining. Sergei Bobrovsky made three stops in the shoot-out while Ryan Johansen and Cam Atkinson beat Thomas Greiss to give the jackets the win. Thursday night will be the Jackets first look at both Fleury in net and Crosby, who was out with the mumps during the December meeting.
David Perron was a player in need of a change of scenery in Emonton and the Pittsburgh Penguins gave it to him. As is the usual scenario, Perron has found another gear playing with Sidney Crosby. Perron has 14 goals and 32 points this season, but in 19 games with the Penguins he’s racked up 9 goals and 13 points. “You can tell with his hockey IQ and the way he plays the game he’s a smart player,” Crosby said recently. “He’s adjusted really nicely and played good hockey for us.” Perron has offensive instincts and a player to get him the puck in Crosby, and he’s playing with newfound purpose since his move to a playoff race and a winning environment. His offense has given Pittsburgh a needed boost before the trade deadline madness.
Scott Hartnell is playing some of his best offensive hockey of the season, with points in seven consecutive games (3-6-9). It’s his longest streak of the season and his best point totals over a seven-game stretch since the first seven games of the season. With the added offense, Hartnell hasn’t lost his physical edge, dropping the gloves with Travis Hamonic on Long Island in a game that was starting to get away from Columbus physically. Thursday’s game is one of the biggest reasons the Jackets went after Hartnell in the off-season, a physical leader who is long-hated in Pittsburgh and for good reason. Hartnell has 31 points in 46 career games against Pittsburgh, with 100 penalty minutes. Hartnell is the perfect mold for the intensity of a divisional rivalry.
“Pen’t Up Aggression”
The Blue Jackets had success last year against the Penguins the same way many teams have handled them this year. The Penguins play a fast game, but the Jackets can slow them down with a physical style that produced some success in their 2014 playoff series. It’s a recipe that worked in the playoffs for the Flyers, too, upping the ante in hitting and intimidation to get the Penguins off their skill game. It worked for the Jackets in December in a game that featured two fights, four 10-minute misconducts, and seven roughing minors. It’s a heated, intense battle in an intense environment and the Blue Jackets need to play up to that intensity level like they did at home in their last meeting.