Who: Pittsburgh Penguins (24-10-5, 53 points, 3rd place Metropolitan Division) @ Columbus Blue Jackets (18-18-1, 37 points, 5th place Metropolitan Division)
When: 7:00 p.m. Eastern
How to Watch: AT&T SportsNet Pittsburgh (ATTSN-PT) locally in the Western PA viewing area, Bally Sports Ohio (BS-OH) a state over, ESPN+
Opponent Track: The Blue Jackets have been tough to get a bead on lately. Check out their last five games: 4-3 win over NJ (makes sense), 4-2 home loss to Chicago (weird), 6-0 road win against Carolina (wow!), 9-2 loss @Florida (ouch!), 2-1 road win against Philadelphia last night. That’s tough to figure out, that flash huge win over Carolina, followed by getting absolutely shelled by a very good Florida team, but still, giving up nine goals?? Followed by only giving up a single goal last night. Tough to psychoanalyze what this team might be up to next.
Pens path ahead: This is last road game for Pittsburgh until February 8th, with seven home games after tonight. Up next will be a day game against Winnipeg, and then — dare we say — several winnable games next week (Arizona, Seattle, Detroit) against teams not in a playoff position.
Hidden stat: This is the fifth set of back-to-back games for the Pens so far. This year, the Penguins are 6-3-0 overall in back-to-backs (improving 4-1-0 on the first game after last night’s win over Ottawa; 2-2-0 the second game).
Season Series: These teams meet next on Sunday February 27th, again in Columbus. Then the Jackets come to Pittsburgh on March 22nd and April 29th, which is the final regular season game of the season for the Pens.
SBN counter part blog: Take a peak at Jackets Cannon for all the latest on the division rivals.
—Somewhat quietly, Oliver Bjorkstrand led CBJ in points last season, and may well accomplish that feat again this season.
—Look at that Jake Voracek scoring line, a reverse Cy Young at 1-24! And it’s not like Columbus has one dedicated sniper, he’s passing it around to the bunch.
—Patrik Laine might have a short stay in Columbus (he’s a pending RFA in his sixth season already and quickly approaching UFA territory). After an oblique strain in early November, Laine has missed a big chunk of this season and returning only after the Christmas break on December 30th. Laine did score a goal last night against the Flyers and overall has been putting up points at a good clip for CBJ. Six goals in 18 games is a nice bounce-back after only scoring 10G in 45 games in his first season with the Blue Jackets.
Jackets looking to gain consistency
Nice writeup on Jackets Cannon about the team looking to find their footing.
What is the reason for the inconsistency? Is it youth and inexperience? Lack of cohesion? Coaching? It’s probably a little bit of everything. To solve the first two, there is no other option but patience. Give the young talent a chance to play, and let them play through their mistakes. We’ve seen Cole Sillinger and Yegor Chinakhov blossom this month after struggling through December. That process is invaluable for their development as NHLers.
You would expect team cohesion to be an issue more at the beginning of the season, as so many new faces found their place. Instead, the team started hot but after two months started to have issues. Injuries have played their part in shuffling the lineup, and now COVID cases have as well. The only lineup change from Thursday to Saturday was Sillinger going on the COVID list. His absence highlighted the lack of center depth at the NHL level in this organization. There’s no short term fix for that.
As much as I’d like a stable lineup, the fact is we have more changes coming. Gregory Hofmann informed the team that he will not return following the birth of his daughter in Switzerland. As a result, his contract will be terminated. He will resume his career in the Swiss league (and perhaps in the Olympics?). Max Domi and Joonas Korpisalo are unrestricted free agents at the end of the season, so they are almost certainly going to be traded by the deadline. Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic are pending restricted free agents, and they could be moved as well if the front office feels like they can’t re-sign either for the right term or dollar amount in the summer.
Thursday Game Lines
Gustav Nyquist - Boone Jenner - Oliver Bjorkstrand
Patrik Laine - Alexander Texier - Jakub Voracek
Max Domi - Jack Roslovic - Emil Bemstrom
Eric Robinson - Sean Kuraly - Yegor Chinakhov
Zach Werenski / Andrew Peeke
Gavin Bayreuther / Jake Bean
Dean Kukan / Jacob Christiansen
Possible Starting Goalie: Joonas Korpisalo (Elvis Merzlikins started last night)
Scratches: Gabriel Carlsson
COVID Protocol: Adam Boqvist, Cole Sillinger, Vladislav Garikov
IR: Daniil Tarasov, Justin Danforth
—Possibly a break for the Pens in net, considering that Korpisalo has been a much lesser goalie this season than Merzlikins. The latter started last night in Philly, so it could be a backup against backup battle tonight.
—A couple of young guns in Boqvist and Sillinger on the IR isn’t good for Columbus
And now for the Pens..
Thursday Game Lines
Jake Guentzel - Sidney Crosby - Bryan Rust
Danton Heinen - Evgeni Malkin - Kasperi Kapanen
Dominik Simon - Jeff Carter - Evan Rodrigues
Brian Boyle - Teddy Blueger - Brock McGinn
Brian Dumoulin / Kris Letang
Marcus Pettersson / John Marino
Mike Matheson / Chad Ruhwedel
Projected Starting Goalie: Casey DeSmith (Tristan Jarry started last night)
Scratches: Mark Friedman, Zach Aston-Reese
COVID Protocol: none!
IR: Drew O’Connor (week-to-week, lower body injury), Jason Zucker (week-to-week, lower body injury), Louis Domingue
Taxi Squad: Juuso Riikola
—Coach Mike Sullivan stated last night that Zucker is back to week-to-week and his injury is related to the one that kept him out recently. Really a bummer for him not to be placed back on the shelf with the same issue.
—Is Brian Boyle in the process of taking Aston-Reese’s spot in the lineup? Aston-Reese said he had no symptoms for COVID, and while Danton Heinen rejoined the lineup, Aston-Reese did not, despite going on the protocol list at the same time. Boyle has been bringing a lot to the table lately (an assist and a fight in the last two games), could there be more of a rotation than a sure spot for Aston-Reese?
—If not for Domingue being injured in the game day skate yesterday morning, he could well be in the net tonight following a great performance last week in San Jose. Sullivan did say the plan was for Domingue — not DeSmith — to dress as the backup last night against Ottawa, a plan that was foiled by Domingue’s injury. DeSmith has made a career out of taking advantage of opportunities like this, and now he will probably get another chance (a last chance?) to get the net tonight. What he can do with it will be a fascinating storyline, and probably play a large role on if the Pens win or lose.
Milestone and streak watch
- Kris Letang is on a career-high nine game point streak (2G+12A in this span).
- Teddy Blueger is on a career-high four game point streak (1G+3A).
- Sidney Crosby (1,352) is now one point behind the legendary Guy Lafleur (1,353) and 28th place in all-time NHL scoring. Crosby is also in striking distance of Brendan Shanahan, who sits two points ahead (1,354) at the moment for 27th in all-time scoring.
- Jake Guentzel is three points away from the milestone of 300 in his career.