In the end, the more desperate team came out on top.
The Blue Jackets and Penguins had not met since Dec. 21 at CONSOL Energy Center, and certain events of that game did not sit well with either team. Fast forward 10 weeks and the two teams are in different positions, but it’s never difficult to get up for a game against one of your division rivals.
Columbus scored first but gave up three second-period goals which proved to be the difference in a physical, sometimes nasty, and very competitive 3-2 battle in front of a sold-out crowd at Nationwide Arena on Friday night.
Carl Hagelin’s goal at 4:47 of the second period was the deciding tally for Pittsburgh, which picked up two crucial points in its as-yet-unsettled push for a playoff spot.
“These are always tight games (against Pittsburgh),” said captain Nick Foligno. “It was exciting, but unfortunate that we didn’t come out on the right side of it. We’ll learn from it and get ready for a big game on Sunday.”
After an entertaining first few minutes, the Blue Jackets opened the scoring on a beautiful collaboration by their fourth line. Rene Bourque made a heads-up play in the neutral zone to spring Jared Boll up the ice, and he walked in on a 2-on-1 rush with Gregory Campbell.
Boll’s pass to Campbell was on point, as was Campbell’s finish, beating Marc-Andre Fleury between the pads for a 1-0 Blue Jackets lead at 5:05 – only seconds after the Penguins thought they’d scored on a puck along the goal line.
The Penguins got it back later in the period after a questionable interference penalty to Bourque sent Pittsburgh on its second power play of the frame. And though they were unsuccessful on the first try, they made good on the second.
Kris Letang wired a shot by Sergei Bobrovsky’s glove at 14:23 to pull Pittsburgh even at 1-1, set up by a great pass from Evgeni Malkin (who left the game injured) in the right circle.
In Bobrovsky’s first game back after a long layoff, one of the things the Blue Jackets wanted to do was play well in their own end and around his crease. They did so in spurts, but two breakdowns resulted in two go-ahead goals for the Penguins.
The first was put home by Chris Kunitz only 45 seconds into the second period. Kunitz went to the net after the Blue Jackets turned the puck over and cleaned up what line mate Patric Hornqvist started, giving the visitors a 2-1 lead.
Cam Atkinson had the answer for Columbus after a Penguins miscue in the neutral zone. Ryan Murray’s alley-oop exit pass was fumbled at the Pittsburgh blue line, and fresh off the bench, Atkinson had a clear-cut breakaway on Fleury and buried his 24th goal of the season at 2:58.
Hagelin’s goal was a lot like Kunitz’s, in the right place at the right time around the front of the net. Bobrovsky had lost his net and could not dive back in time to meet Hagelin, who was in there with Malkin and Phil Kessel and came up with the loose puck.
The Blue Jackets played a solid third period but couldn’t sustain much offensively. The Penguins were good at both blue lines and didn’t allow much on the inside, making it a tough go for the Columbus forwards to create scoring chances.
“I don’t think we played that well in the second,” said coach John Tortorella. “We struggled defending. That was our bad period and they capitalized on it. They had the puck in our end zone too much and we let them play.
“We didn’t defend well around our net. We allowed them to make plays in front of our net and usually, we’re blocking those. They were opportunistic, a better team than us in the second period, and they capitalized.”