The Blue Jackets’ will test their five-game winning streak against the best in the Metropolitan Division when they host the Pittsburgh Penguins. It will be the Penguins' first non-preseason visit to Nationwide Arena since Game 6 of the Stanley Cup playoffs last spring.
The big news on Friday afternoon was the announcement that Sidney Crosby will be withheld from Pittsburgh's two weekend games (Friday and Saturday) for precautionary reasons. According to GM Jim Rutherford, the team does not believe Crosby has the mumps, but they will continue to monitor his situation throughout the weekend.
The Penguins made some significant changes during the offseason after losing a 3-1 lead in their second round series against the Rangers. GM Ray Shero and head coach Dan Bylsma were replaced by Rutherford and Mike Johnston, respectively, and sniper James Neal was dealt away to the Nashville Predators. Even with the all the changes and a new style to adjust to, the Penguins find themselves in a familiar spot atop the division.
One factor is their elite special teams. The Penguins power play is the best in the NHL. After the Blue Jackets did an exceptional job against the league’s second-best power play in Washington on Thursday night, they’ll host a Pittsburgh team whose unit which only dipped below 30 percent in the last week.
In goal, the Penguins have given Marc-Andre Fleury a lot to feel confident about with a new four-year deal. Fleury is having the best season of his career, already with 15 wins, a career-best goals-against average and save percentage to this point and his five shutouts.
Chris Kunitz is out with a foot fracture, and Johnston declared Olli Maatta out for the weekend with an upper-body injury. Pascal Dupuis remains out indefinitely with a blood clot.
Game 6. The Blue Jackets were fighting for their playoff lives, but it was the Penguins who came out firing. Malkin had a hat trick before the end of the second period and the Jackets faced a 4-0 hole with 20 minutes to play. In a series that was marked by comebacks and blown two-goal leads, the Jackets fought back and nearly pulled off a miracle.
Fedor Tyutin snuck a seeing-eye shot through traffic for a shorthanded goal to get the Jackets on the board. Artem Anisimov and Nick Foligno would join him on the scoresheet over the next five minutes of play and the Jackets found themselves in a 4-3 game with the clock winding down. They couldn’t find the equalizer in a frantic final push, and the Penguins moved on to face the Rangers.
The Blue Jackets’ win streak aligns with Sergei Bobrovsky’s best hockey of the season, and that’s no coincidence. During that stretch, Bobrovsky is 5-0-0 with a save percentage of .946 and a goals-against average of 1.80. He’s also made the important stops, whether it be the full-extension grab on Nick Bjugstad’s shootout attempt or the sprawling pad save on Jay Beagle to keep the Blue Jackets alive in overtime. Having the label of a franchise goaltender means more than putting up good stats; it also requires a goalie to make plays on the shots they aren’t supposed to stop.
Malkin’s red-hot scoring of late is picking up the slack during a rare goal-scoring struggle for Crosby. Malkin has goals in three of his last four games and six of the past nine (8-3-11). Three of those goals have come on the power play, where Malkin is a dual threat. He has the strength and finesse to beat you from the slot and off the wall, but often is more effective high in the zone with a world class release that is almost impossible to stop through traffic. As he did under Bylsma, Malkin can often be found patrolling the point on the power play for Johnston, whose teams are known for offense.
The tall task for the Jackets' defense
The Penguins present one of those unique matchup problems for which Todd Richards won’t have an easy answer. They have a talented top six whether or not Crosby is in the lineup and their power play is a constant threat -- so yes, a major key will be for the Jackets to stay disciplined. While Jack Johnson and David Savard did an exceptional job on Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom on Thursday, they'll have another big test on Saturday. With Chris Kunitz out of the lineup as well, there’s really no loaded line that’s a no-brainer for Richards to match his top defense pair against. Leopold and Prout are also going to draw heavy minutes against one of the Penguins' potent lines and will also see time on the penalty kill.