Penguins face Blue Jackets with playoff matchup in mind
PITTSBURGH — Call it a playoff preview. Call it a time for bragging rights.
Or call it what the Pittsburgh Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets are dubbing it.
“It’s a big game for us, for sure,” Blue Jackets center Alexander Wennberg said.
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“We know it’s going to be a big game,” Penguins winger Jake Guentzel said.
Pittsburgh (48-19-11) hosts Columbus (49-21-8) on Tuesday night at PPG Paints Arena. While there is a slim chance one of them could overtake Washington for first place in the Metropolitan Division, it appears likely that the second-place Penguins and third-place Blue Jackets will meet in the first round of the playoffs beginning next week.
Washington has 112 points, Pittsburgh 107 and Columbus 106, each with four games remaining.
This precursor between the Penguins and Blue Jackets could help determine where that first-round series between them would open. The second-place team will have home ice against the third-place club.
“I think we want to move up our division, hopefully get home ice,” Pittsburgh winger Conor Sheary said. “Every point is important.
“Washington’s going to be tough to catch if they keep winning, but (finishing ahead of) Columbus is definitely within reach. If we want to come into the first round with home ice, I think it’s important to keep playing hard and keep playing for two points.”
A decent rivalry between the clubs has blossomed since they both entered the Metropolitan Division, and considering the proximity of the cities. Games between them often have been rough and tumble.
The Blue Jackets spanked Pittsburgh 7-1 on Dec. 22 in Columbus. The teams’ two meetings since have both gone to overtime and produced a split.
The Penguins leapfrogged Columbus for that one-point edge Sunday when they beat Carolina 3-2 for their second straight win and the Blue Jackets lost their third in a row, against the Capitals.
This is Columbus’ first three-game losing streak (0-2-1). It started against Carolina, a team that was making a desperate push to make the playoffs. After that came a stretch the Blue Jackets knew would be a test against Chicago, Washington and now Pittsburgh. Those three plus Columbus make up the top four teams in the overall NHL standings.
“They’re tough teams to play against,” Wennberg said. “For us, it’s a great test to play against these teams.”
Columbus is expected to get winger Oliver Bjorkstrand back, coach John Tortorella said. Bjorkstrand practiced for the first time Monday and has missed six games because of an upper-body injury.
“It’s nice to be back,” Bjorkstrand said, according to the team’s website. “It’s nice getting ready right before playoffs start, too.”
The Blue Jackets will be without impressive rookie defenseman Zach Werenski, who is day to day because of an upper-body injury that forced him to leave Sunday’s game, and center Lukas Sedlak, who is week to week after getting an upper-body injury Friday. The team recalled winger Sonny Milano, who is expected to play Tuesday, according to Tortorella.
Pittsburgh, which did not practice Monday, apparently got through Sunday’s win unscathed in terms of injuries but still have a busy training room. Among those hurt are top defenseman Kris Letang and star center Evgeni Malkin.
It seemed that the injuries might finally be taking a toll when the Penguins lost four games in a row (0-2-2), but their modest two-game winning streak followed.
They are hopeful a potential third win in a row will have a little extra weight.
“A lot of signs point to us playing them in the first round,” Pittsburgh winger Bryan Rust said of the Blue Jackets. “If that does happen, (Tuesday) is a game that we’ve got to go out there and show them what we’ve got.”