Who: Columbus Blue Jackets (37-26-3; 77 points, 5th place in Metropolitan Division) @ Pittsburgh Penguins (35-22-9; 79 points, 4th place in Metropolitan division)
When: 7:00 p.m. Eastern
How to Watch: AT&T Sportsnet in the Pittsburgh viewing area, NBC Sports nationally
Opponent Track: Since we last saw Columbus last Tuesday (a resounding 5-2 Pittsburgh win in Ohio), the Jackets, well, they haven’t exactly been convincing. They defeated Philly 4-3 in OT before having a nightmare-ish weekend losing two home games to Edmonton (4-0) and Winnipeg (5-2). Last game out they eked out a shootout win over New Jersey, in a game they badly needed to keep pace with teams like Pittsburgh and Carolina.
Pens Refresh: At 3-0-2 in the last five games, the Pens have been moving up in the world. All the sunshine is a bit misleading - Matt Murray’s faced 71 shots against in the last two games for instance, but he’s been up to the task in allowing only three goals.
Season Series: As mentioned, the Pens just won 5-2 last week. The other meeting was back on November 24th, a 4-2 Pittsburgh win. The teams play tonight and then again on Saturday in Columbus to close out the season-series.
SBN Team Counterpart: Jackets Cannon
Tale of the Tape
—The special teams battle will be interesting. There isn’t a lot of scoring in these situations for Columbus, they have a good penalty kill to prevent goals but a dreadful power play to score them. Pittsburgh is their opposite with lots of special teams goals on both sides - the Pens’ power play has been the league’s best over the last month, but their penalty kill has been slipping and porous as of late.
Player Stats at a Glance
Possible Lines (from Monday’s game)
Artemi Panarin - Matt Duchene - Cam Atkinson
Nick Foligno - Alexander Wennberg - Josh Anderson
Ryan Dzingel - Pierre-Luc Dubois - Oliver Bjorkstrand
Markus Hannikainen - Boone Jenner - Brandon Dubinsky
Zach Werenski / Seth Jones
Markus Nutivaara / David Savard
Scott Harrington / Dean Kukan
—It remains to be seen how much Tortorella will alter these lines, he’s been tinkering a lot with them lately to try and jolt the team into performing, but based on the last couple of games it has been slow going. The top line has remained fairly constant, but the other nine forwards are likely to shuffle quite a bit, especially if things aren’t going their way.
Panarin - four points (one goal + three assists) in the last four games since CBJ/PIT happened. 14 shots on goal too. While Columbus may be struggling, their most skilled winger definitely is not.
Jones - two goals in the last four games (one a game winner), and 26:03 played over this stretch.
Dzingel - no goals and one assist in the last four games. And he’s only averaged 12:38 of ice time as a Blue Jacket (it was 17:45 all season long in Ottawa).
Duchene - no points in the last three games, and only one goal + two assists so far in his stint with CBJ.
McQuaid - has been a healthy scratch the last two games, and coach Tortorella (never one on mince words) basically admitted he’s a bad skater and not one of their top six defensemen.
—OK this was a bit intentional, but it goes to show the major late season/deadline trade additions haven’t exactly hit the ground running. There’s still time to turn it around, but so far, not so good.
Jackets still seeking answers
Yeah, it’s no secret that black and gold haunts the thoughts and dreams of those in central Ohio. Especially for the starting goalie-
The team is 2-3 since the deadline, which in itself, is only blown far worse out of proportion because of the reality the Blue Jackets find themselves in. Chasing the second wild card, and facing the Penguins twice in the coming days. Sergei Bobrovsky has started the last eight games with Joonas Korpisalo getting two starts since Feb. 2. Bobrovsky has basically been anything from twirling consecutive shutouts, as he did against the Senators and Sharks, on back-to-back days, home and away, and then looking baffled such as last Tuesday, as he always does, against the Penguins. Sometimes those stupid goals get by, whether off screens and deflections. But he’s allowed at least four goals against Pittsburgh in the last four starts against them going back to last season.
Enough is enough.
Which leads me to think he can’t possibly get the start against them Thursday or Saturday. Not both. Keith Kinkaid, who last played a game, still with the Devils on Feb. 19, came against the Penguins, who beat him. Korpisalo, who was not the designated No. 2 behind Bobrovsky last night in New Jersey, could see action. Or do you roll Bobrovsky because he’s your best and you roll your best this time of year?
The Metro has five legitimate playoff contenders. The division leaders are looking to run away. The Hurricanes rarely lose, though they did last night at the Bruins in overtime. The Penguins continue to be the problems, both on the ice and psychologically for the Jackets, who also got an overtime win against the Panthers. With two more mammoth games against them this week, losing one of these divisional games can be catastrophic, but both. . .
Guess it’s too late for Bobrovsky to see the psychologist?
Korpisalo stopped 32 of 36 shots in Columbus’ 4-2 loss in November (notorious Jacket killer Jake Guentzel had a hat trick) so it’s not as if Bobrovsky is the only victim here. No matter how you slice it, Pens shooters have ripped through any Columbus goalie over the years.
Keith Kinkaid is interesting though. On the season he’s just 15-18-3, .897 save percentage and a 3.36 GAA, nothing special at all. However, against Pittsburgh’s he’s been nothing short of heroic sporting a career stat-line of 6-3-2 and a .912 save%. That might not sound tremendously tough, but it’s a 58-52-15 record against the rest of the league with .905 save%.
And while Kinkaid has been something of a boogeyman for the Pens, Pittsburgh did score 4 goals on him in just 28 shots as recently as February 17th (while still with the Devils) so it’s not as if he’s always Martin Brodeur against Pittsburgh. That was also a couple weeks ago and was the last game Kinkaid has played, so it’s not as if he’ll be totally sharp with a game edge either.
And now for the Penguins...
Check the game notes, eh bud?
Infographic courtesy of the Penguins:
Jared McCann - Sidney Crosby - Jake Guentzel
Zach Aston-Reese-Evgeni Malkin - Phil Kessel
Dominik Simon - Nick Bjugstad - Patric Hornqvist
Teddy Blueger- Matt Cullen- Garrett Wilson
Jack Johnson / Justin Schultz
Marcus Pettersson / Erik Gudbranson
Brian Dumoulin / Zach Trotman
Expected scratches: Juuso Riikola (healthy), Kris Letang (upper body injury), Chad Ruhwedel (upper), Bryan Rust (lower)
Injured Reserve: Olli Maatta (upper body)
—Hornqvist missed practice yesterday with a “maintenance day”, which is Sullivan-speak for minor injury but expected to play the following game. Hornqvist blocked a shot with his left hand/wrist/arm area last game and was in some pain, but the Swedish battle tank will roll on.
—Letang remained in a no-contact jersey at Wednesday’s practice, suggesting he’s close but not imminent to return. Letang certainly is the closest of the Pens’ injured players to being back, however
Eye on the Standings
The only game of note last night from the Pittsburgh perspective was Washington’s 5-3 win over Philly that pushes the Caps back to first place in the division, while also giving a blow to whatever slim hopes the Flyers had for a playoff push. Sports Club Stats said Philly’s chances with the loss went from 4.3% to 2.0% so they’re just about on life support.
Thursdays tend to be big NHL days for quantity of games, and today is no different. NYI plays at Ottawa in what looks like an easy game and Montreal is out west to take on San Jose, which looks like a tough game. But looks can be deceiving and certainly the most impactful game for the Eastern playoff race is the one tonight between the Pens and Jackets.
Pittsburgh could be alone in third place in the division with a win. Or they could be out of the playoffs (for the day at least) if they lose and Montreal wins/OTL. Similarly, Columbus could pull themselves above the playoff line with a win, but could be up to four points out of a playoff spot if the Pens win in regulation and Montreal wins. There’s also a huge variance of scenarios in between.
Key to the Game
All eyes on Phil and the new guys
With Columbus reuniting their power defense pair of Werenski-Jones (they were separate last week), the Guentzel-Crosby line figures to be well-matched defensively. Not that it’s ever stopped them against CBJ, but just sayin’.
It’s been 16 games since Phil Kessel scored a goal. He’s shooting like crazy, he’s adding some assists, a breakthrough just has to be coming sooner or later. There’s no better time than tonight.
As mentioned, the ‘Lumbus trade deadline players are mostly struggling/quiet, will they get it going or will Phil? The answer could go a long way in determining this game.