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The latest biggest game of the year preview: Penguins @ Blue Jackets

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The 81st game of the season will be the most important (regular season) game for the Penguins. Find out everything you need to know about them and the Columbus Blue Jackets here

NHL: Preseason-Pittsburgh Penguins at Columbus Blue Jackets Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Basics

Pittsburgh Penguins (45-29-6) @ Columbus Blue Jackets (45-29-6)

Start time: 7:00 PM

How to watch: Locally on AT&T Sportsnet in the Pittsburgh viewing area, Fox Sports Ohio in the Columbus viewing area

SBN friends: Jackets Cannon

Season Series: Pittsburgh is looking for a season sweep tonight! Back in December the Pens won two shootout games, less than a week apart and both at home by the scores of 3-2 (on 12/21) and 5-4 (on 12/27). The Pens then beat ‘Lumbus in ‘Lumbus on Feb 18 by the score of 5-2.

This one’s for (almost) all the (2nd place) marbles

The Penguins and Blue Jackets both enter tonight’s 81st game for each team with identical records. Pittsburgh has already clinched the tiebreaker on the season by virtue of a 43-39 edge in Regulation + OT wins.

Therefore the magnitude of tonight’s game almost couldn’t be bigger for the scope of the regular season. A Pens win in regulation virtually seals up 2nd place and home ice advantage in the 1st round of the playoffs. A Pens loss opens up the real possibility of a wild-card position in the playoffs and playing a division winner.

For their part, Columbus hasn’t yet officially clinched a playoff spot, though that looks like a mere formality. Still, they have much to play for and a win tonight puts them not only in the playoffs but in the driver’s seat for a #2 seed in the division.

Eye on the Pens

Here’s how the Pens looked in practice yesterday in Pittsburgh before they departed for Ohio.

—Chad Ruhwedel skating with Jamie Oleksiak hints that there might be another change to the defense personnel. Matt Hunwick might be back to healthy scratch land, which is too bad since his play wasn’t terrible in his recent limited look.

—Derick Brassard remains off the ice even though reporters and sources continue to repeat optimism his believed groin injury isn’t severe and shouldn’t have him missing playoff time. Carter Rowney has a cast on his wrist and probably is out for a while yet.

—Phil Kessel returned to his spot in the lineup on Wednesday after days off on Monday and Tuesday. Kessel was banged up Saturday night but able to gut out a game Sunday.

—No word on the official starter tonight, but clearly in the biggest game of the year it is going to be Matt Murray.

And in the other corner, the Jackets of Blue

Columbus has arguably been the best team in the NHL since the trade deadline, boasting a 14-3-1 record and leading the league in goals for.

Their surge has come at a perfect time since from Christmas to trade deadline (12/25/17-2/26/18) CBJ was among the worst at the league at 9-13-3 and the possibility of missing the playoffs seemed very real.

One player to watch is a deadline pickup who has been very beneficial for Columbus. No, I’m not just talking about Ian Cole, I mean Thomas Vanek here. Vanek has had an up-and-down career and ended up at the beginning of the season in Vancouver on a one year deal, which is probably about as close to being out of the league while still being in the league as one can get. Vanek performed well in Vancouver (17g+24a in 61 games) and was traded for just the price of veteran Jussi Jokinen and prospect-who-hasn’t-shown-much-NHL Tyler Motte. Jokinen’s been on waivers and is hardly the same player he was, so CBJ got a big upgrade without even giving up a pick. Vanek has been used in a top-6 role in Columbus and has 14 points (7g+7a) in 17 games.

Expected lines:

—Forward Josh Andersen is close to a return from injury and it remains unknown if he will play in this game.

—Seth Jones didn’t skate yesterday but is expected to play. Zach Werenski had an injury scare last game but was able to return. (Maybe something to keep in mind if PIT/CBJ Round 3 happens. Seems like the vaunted top pair is a bit banged up right now)

—Pens fans see Sergei Bobrovsky and are conditioned to think “Easy game” but it probably shouldn’t be so. Bob has a .925 save % and a sterling 2.26 GAA in calendar 2018 (32 starts).

He said it

“It’s Pittsburgh. Eventually, if you have an opportunity to get into the playoffs … you’re going to have to go through ‘em. They’re that good. Two-time Stanley Cup winner. They’re a good team, yeah. Let’s play.” — Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella