PITTSBURGH (AP) — The Pittsburgh Penguins downplayed the idea they tried to send a message during a decisive 4-1 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday night, a win that gave the defending Stanley Cup champions the inside track on home-ice advantage when the teams meet in the playoffs next week.
“I mean at the end of the day it’s just another win,” goaltender Matt Murray said after stopping 38 shots. “Everything resets moving forward.”
Maybe, but the way the Penguins pulled away in their final home game of the regular season — quick passing, production from unexpected places and Murray’s steady hand — could go a long way toward escaping what could be the best first-round series of the postseason.
“I like the way our team is tracking,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “I think we’re really starting to establish the playoff mindset you need to win this time of year.”
Patric Hornqvist picked up his 20th goal of the season for Pittsburgh. Rookie Jake Guentzel added his 14th, Carter Rowney his second and Brian Dumoulin his first in more than two years as the Penguins moved three points ahead of Columbus in the race for second-place in the Metropolitan Division with three games remaining.
The Penguins have won three straight to sprint ahead of the slumping Blue Jackets, who are winless in their last four and have dropped three consecutive regulation games for the first time this season.
Brandon Dubinsky scored a short-handed goal midway through the third period to avoid the shutout. Sergei Bobrovsky stopped 23 shots but the Blue Jackets struggled to get anything going around the Pittsburgh net, settling for long-range shots that either sailed wide of the net or were gobbled up by Murray.
“We’re just simply in a funk offensively and tonight didn’t get any better,” Columbus coach John Tortorella said. “We have to continue to work at all parts of our game, but the offensive part starting with our top guys, we’ve got to get some sort of situation where we’re making plays.”
The teams are almost assured of facing each other when the playoffs begin next week, a rematch from a 2014 first-round series the Penguins won in six taut games and seemed to signal Columbus’ arrival as a legitimate contender.
Three years later, Columbus has officially arrived, though the team that spent the better part of 60 minutes chasing the Penguins around sold-out PPG Paints Arena hardly looked like the one that came in 2-0-1 over its first three meetings of the season. The Blue Jackets tried to push Pittsburgh around, rattling the boards in the process but not the Penguins.
The Penguins’ fourth line helped bolster a largely lifeless performance in a victory over Carolina on Sunday and the momentum carried over. Rowney put Pittsburgh in front with 1:09 left in the first period when he planted himself in front of Bobrovsky and redirected a feed from Scott Wilson over Bobrovsky’s shoulder.
“It was just a kick in the teeth,” Tortorella said. “I mean it was just a free goal. We have complete control of the puck and it ends up in the back of the net in the last minute of the period.”
Hornqvist doubled Pittsburgh’s lead just before the game’s midway point off a pretty feed from Tom Kuhnhackl. Dumoulin, who scored a pair of goals during last year’s run to the Cup, reached the back of the net in the regular season for the first time since Dec. 15, 2014, when he saved a clear at the edge of the blue line, carried the puck behind the Columbus net then saw his wraparound smack off Cam Atkinson and in 12:30 into the second, ending a 151-game regular season goalless drought.
“I’m sure (Atkinson’s) gotten a couple on me so he owed me one,” Dumoulin said.
Penguins C Sidney Crosby finished with two assists to give him 86 points on the season. … Columbus rookie D Zack Werenski did not play while dealing with an upper-body injured suffered in a loss to Washington on Sunday. … Penguins D Trevor Daley skated on Tuesday morning and is hopeful to return before the postseason begins. Daley hasn’t played since undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery on Feb. 23. … The Penguins went 0 for 3 on the power play. The Blue Jackets were 0 for 1. … Pittsburgh’s 109 points tied the 2013-14 team for the second-highest total in club history. … Penguins Fs Bryan Rust and Matt Cullen left with injuries and did not return.
Blue Jackets: Host Winnipeg on Thursday.
Penguins: End regular season with three-game road trip starting in New Jersey on Thursday.