Blue Jackets with chance to derail Penguins playoff push

A playoff spot is no longer quite secure for the Pittsburgh Penguins, who once again will be without Evgeni Malkin on Saturday.

A road trip that starts with a back-to-back against non-playoff foes won’t be easy, especially with the surging Columbus Blue Jackets as the first opponent.

The Blue Jackets can establish a franchise record with their ninth straight win as they look to take advantage of Malkin’s absence for the Penguins.

Pittsburgh (42-24-11) fell 4-1 at home to Philadelphia on Wednesday. Malkin, who has 70 points to rank among the NHL’s leaders, sat out with an undisclosed injury.

Malkin practiced the next two days but won’t play until Sunday’s game at Philadelphia at the earliest.

"With anything that’s really nagging right now, you want to be careful," coach Mike Johnston said. "You just don’t want to aggravate it so it spirals into something that could be a longer term."

Sidney Crosby, who leads the NHL with 80 points — including six in a four-game run, said that Wednesday’s effort was "bad from start to finish." The Penguins were outshot 31-25.

This trip concludes Tuesday in Ottawa, with the Senators in ninth place in the Eastern Conference standings with 90 points – five fewer than Pittsburgh.

First, the Penguins face the Blue Jackets and Flyers – opponents they are a combined 1-3-2 against. They are 1-3-1 in their last five road games.

"We got a road trip against some teams that are playing well right now," center Brandon Sutter said. "That’s going to be our test. We can’t just wait for a week from now to crank it up. We gotta start now and really find our game here the last five games."

Pittsburgh is 1-1-1 against Columbus (38-35-4), which has matched an eight-game win streak from Jan. 6-23, 2014, as the longest in club history.

Six of the Blue Jackets’ victories in this run have come against teams in playoff contention, including Thursday’s 4-3 shootout win over the New York Islanders. Columbus rallied from two goals down in the third period.

"We’re playing some great hockey and we’re really making it tough on these good teams," said center Ryan Johansen, who has 12 points in a nine-game run.

Johansen is one of eight skaters with two points in the season series. Malkin will be missed since he has a team-high five points for Pittsburgh and Kris Letang, out with a concussion, is second with four.

The Penguins know injuries aren’t an excuse against the Blue Jackets, who have been plagued by that issue all season.

"They have a lot of injuries themselves this year, and that might be one of the reasons why they’re not in (the playoffs) this year," Pittsburgh winger David Perron said. "They’re a really good team, and that’s going to be a great test for us."

These teams employ physical styles, and both rank among the league leaders in hits per game, with Columbus averaging 31.04 and Pittsburgh 30.74. The Blue Jackets have a 95-88 edge in hits in the season series.

The Penguins had their five-game road win streak in this regular-season series snapped with a 4-3 shootout defeat Dec. 13.