There’s a 20-point gap between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Surprisingly, the lowly Blue Jackets have been better within the Metropolitan Division than the high-powered Penguins.
This Thursday night matchup figures to be competitive as the Blue Jackets visit Pittsburgh for the first time since last season’s playoffs.
Pittsburgh (32-16-9) is in third place in the division, trailing the first-place New York Islanders by four points while being even on points with the New York Rangers – who have two games in hand on the Penguins.
Columbus (25-27-3) won’t be returning to the postseason, though it’s 8-7-2 division mark is better than Pittsburgh’s 7-10-4 mark. The Blue Jackets lost to the Penguins to six games a season ago in the first round.
"They’re a gritty team, a hard-working team, they’ve had a lot of injuries throughout the year as everybody knows and I think that’s put a dent into sort of their plans for the year," Pittsburgh coach Mike Johnston said. "I expected Columbus to be a top team based on what we saw in the preseason and the early season."
Johnston, who wasn’t with the club last season, watched his team win 4-3 in a shootout at Columbus on Dec. 13, in the lone meeting since the playoffs. Kris Letang scored twice in the third period, including a goal with 11 seconds left that forced overtime.
"We had a great game earlier in Columbus," Johnston said. "I thought it was a well-played game by both teams and I really like how we responded against them."
The Penguins are the only team not to score a power-play goal this month, going 0 for 18, though Johnston said he was happy with his club’s effort while going 0 for 3 in Tuesday’s 3-1 defeat to Washington.
Stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have combined for three goals in the last five games. Crosby sat out Wednesday’s practice for maintenance.
Letang is second among NHL defensemen with 45 points.
"We always win by a big margin, we don’t win the one-goal games and I think it’s something we have to focus on," he said.
Columbus posted a 5-2 victory at Philadelphia on Tuesday. Brandon Dubinsky had a goal and an assist in a three-goal third period to give him five points in his last three games.
"I wasn’t in love with my own game in the first 40 (minutes) but you got three periods so I knew I had an opportunity to turn it around and it started with being physical and getting on the forecheck and I was able to do that and get rewarded," said Dubinsky, who is seeking to score in a fourth straight contest for the first time.
Scott Hartnell has 10 points in a seven-game streak and fellow winger Nick Foligno has seven in a five-game run.
Marc-Andre Fleury is 6-1-1 with a 2.10 goals-against average in eight regular-season starts against the Blue Jackets. He had a 2.81 GAA versus them in last year’s playoffs.
Curtis McElhinney has been filling in for Sergei Bobrovsky, and he’s posted a 2.82 GAA in losing all four starts to Pittsburgh. The other option is winless rookie Anton Forsberg.