PITTSBURGH -- RJ Umberger grew up in a suburb of Pittsburgh, played high school hockey in the area and made his NHL debut with the Philadelphia Flyers. In other words, he knows a thing or two about hockey in the state of Pennsylvania.
Umberger, graduate of nearby Plum High School, was the first Pittsburgh-area player to go on to play for USA Hockey's Under-18 national team (1998-2000) and was inducted into his high school's sports hall of fame during last year's NHL lockout.
He's a Pittsburgher to the core and admittedly, it always makes games against the Penguins worthy of a big circle on the calendar.
When he played in Philadelphia, the Penguins and Flyers were involved in some nasty, confrontational games and it was well-established that they were each other's biggest rival. But thanks to NHL realignment this spring, the Blue Jackets and Penguins are now in the same division and face each other five times this season.
Columbus is the nearest NHL city to Pittsburgh at just over 186 miles apart, and both sides have expressed hope that it becomes a heated rivalry in the coming years.
But how *exactly* does that come to fruition, starting tonight at CONSOL Energy Center?
"We have to establish the way we want to play against them, and let them know it's not going to be fun," Umberger told BlueJackets.com. "More than anything, the way rivalries are started and flourish is through the playoffs. It's our job to make it into the playoffs, be a top-three team in this division and be a team that the Penguins have to go through every year."
The Penguins and Blue Jackets begin a home-and-home series tonight in Pittsburgh and will get back together again tomorrow night at Nationwide Arena, leaving plenty of time to get introduced to each other before their next three meetings.
Not only are there familiar faces on both rosters (including a former Penguin in Mark Letestu) but Umberger knows he'll have a host of family and friends in attendance.
Coupled with this weekend's Fathers Trip, it makes a special weekend even more special.
"It's awesome to have them here and showing their support," Umberger said. "It means a lot to me, and it makes for a really cool night every time I come here."
As for tonight's game, Umberger said the Blue Jackets' approach cannot waver.
"We definitely need to focus on our strengths," he said. "You can't ignore what they do; they have two of the best players in the league and it's easy to get caught up in that but for us, our game plan can't change. Our identity and hard to play against mentality has to be part of our game."