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Penguins edge Blue Jackets, clinch playoff berth

by Craig Merz

COLUMBUS -- The Columbus Blue Jackets' organization wanted to move to the Eastern Conference for a number of reasons, including saving on travel costs and having more games in the Eastern time zone. Another was the opportunity to play their neighbor three hours to the east, the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Columbus might be ruing that its wish was granted after the Penguins left Nationwide Arena on Friday with a pulsating 2-1 victory that completed a sweep of the five-game season series and assured them of an eighth straight trip to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The Metropolitan Division-leading Penguins (47-22-5) broke a scoreless tie with goals by Chris Kunitz and Beau Bennett 47 seconds apart midway through the third.

"We've had our struggles the last couple of months," forward Craig Adams said after the Penguins ended a three-game losing streak. "We're struggling to find consistency."

The loss didn't help Columbus' efforts to make the playoffs for the second time in franchise history.

The Blue Jackets (37-30-6) remained in the first Eastern Conference wild-card position. Columbus, the Detroit Red Wings, Washington Capitals and Toronto Maple Leafs each have 80 points. Columbus has more non-shootout wins than the Red Wings and Capitals; each of those teams has two games in hand on Toronto, which lost 4-2 to the Philadelphia Flyers on Friday.

If the season ended that way, Columbus and Pittsburgh would play in the first round -- and the Blue Jackets would have to find a way to beat the Penguins, who've won the past six games in the series. Pittsburgh has won five in a row in Nationwide Arena and is 5-0-1 in the past six games in Columbus.

The game had a postseason intensity and feel, with space not easily relinquished, before a sellout crowd with divided loyalties.

"The first two periods it was almost impossible to get a grade A scoring chance," Columbus center Ryan Johansen said. "They're all like playoff games right now."

Kunitz gave Pittsburgh a 1-0 lead with 9:25 left in regulation. He took an entry pass from Sidney Crosby near the top of the left circle and used Columbus defenseman James Wisniewski for a screen before snapping a shot that goaltender Curtis McElhinney got a piece of but could not stop. It was Kunitz's 34th goal of the season.

"He shot through a defenseman and I picked it up late and unfortunately it squeezed through," said McElhinney, who started for the fourth time this season against the Penguins because Sergei Bobrovsky is recovering from the flu. It was McElhinney's first start in 20 games, dating to Jan. 28. He made 29 saves.

Bobrovsky's status for Saturday road game against the Carolina Hurricanes is unclear. However, after the game Friday, the Blue Jackets returned goalie Mike McKenna, who was the backup to McElhinney, to the Springfield Falcons of the American Hockey League.

Bennett came back from missing 50 games with a wrist and hand injury to score his second goal on another snapper, this one from the right side on an odd-man rush with Jussi Jokinen, for the 2-0 advantage with 8:38 to play.

"I was thinking pass from the red line to the top of the circles but the guy was playing Jussi over there, gave me a little space. I saw a little blocker room," Bennett said.

He returned on the same day Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma announced that center Marcel Goc will be out for about three weeks because of an ankle/foot injury suffered in a 3-2 loss Thursday to the Los Angeles Kings.

"It's great to come back in a game like this. We were in a little slump" Bennett said.

Adams felt Bennett provided a needed lift.

"He was great tonight," Adams said. "When he got the puck near him it was on his stick. He was definitely making plays and getting pucks in the offensive zone."

Pittsburgh goalie Marc-Andre Fleury made 35 saves but lost his shutout with 3:06 to play when Wisniewski scored his seventh goal of the season on a shot from the right point. The goal came on the Blue Jackets' fourth power play and snapped a 0-for-17 stretch with the extra man against the Penguins in the past seven games.

"We're playing pretty good hockey," Wisniewski said. "We're just not getting the goals we need. We're not getting a lot of even strength goals right now."

The Jackets kept the game scoreless through 40 minutes despite having to kill three penalties in the second period, including a pair of overlapping power plays totaling 3:57 in which they did not allow a shot.

An energetic first period produced plenty of chances among the 22 combined shots thanks to four power plays, three of which were awarded to Columbus.

"Our penalty-killing did a great job," Wisniewski said. "It kind of sucked the wind out of our sails from a pretty good first period because we had three power plays and had momentum going into the second."

The Penguins' penalty-killers in the first period kept the Blue Jackets to the perimeter and cleared the area in front of Fleury when there was a rebound.

"The real difference in the first period is we took three penalties," Adams said. "That a reflection in the shots and zone time but I thought we were ready to go."

Columbus visits the Hurricanes on Saturday. The Penguins host the Chicago Blackhawks on Sunday.

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