‘Basically a playoff game’ for Penguins, Blue Jackets
The calendar reads April, the stakes are high, the opponents familiar and the animosity between them high.
In other words, about the only thing that isn’t “playoffs” about Thursday’s Penguins-Blue Jackets game in Columbus will be the regular-season ticket prices.
“This game is going to have big implications,” Penguins wing Bryan Rust said.
“It’s definitely going to be, basically, a playoff game.”
The Penguins and Blue Jackets head into the penultimate game of their seasons with identical 45-29-6 records, tied for second place in the Metropolitan Division with 96 points apiece. The division title is out of reach, but anything between second and fifth place is on the table for both teams, even with fewer than 48 hours remaining in their regular-season schedules.
“It’s going to be a playoff-type game,” defenseman Justin Schultz said. “It’s what we all love to play in.”
The Penguins can assure themselves of finishing ahead of Columbus if they win, guaranteeing them home-ice advantage if the teams meet in the postseason. A victory, though, won’t clinch home ice in the first round. New Jersey (95 points) still can pass them. Philadelphia (94 points) could finish ahead of the Penguins, too, if the Penguins lost Thursday and Friday at home against Ottawa.
All of the Metropolitan Division teams have two games remaining, and the Penguins could face any of six opponents in the first round.
“I’ve seen the standings,” Rust said, “and I didn’t bother trying to work out the possibilities too much because a whole lot can happen.”
About the only thing assured is a raucous atmosphere Thursday at Nationwide Arena. The Penguins are the Blue Jackets’ closest opponent in proximity and closest to being the villain for hockey fans in central Ohio. Columbus has reached the playoffs three times in franchise history, and the Penguins eliminated the Blue Jackets twice, both in the first round.
That includes a five-game win last year, when tensions were high between the Penguins and their John Tortorella-coached counterparts.
“It just makes these games more fun,” Rust said. “Developing this rivalry and just kind of getting that hatred for them, and they have the same feeling toward us. It kind of ramps up the intensity a little bit and makes everybody play harder.”
The Blue Jackets enter on a 13-1-1 run, and the Penguins have won consecutive games just once over their past 13. While the Penguins recently had visions of winning the division title, the Blue Jackets not that long ago were in danger of missing the playoffs.
But that doesn’t matter now.
“This is as close to a playoff atmosphere as you’ll get because the stakes are so high for both teams,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan, a former disciple of Tortorella. “So from that standpoint, it certainly will prepare us for what’s to come. But I do think this team is aware of what’s ahead of us, and we do have to make sure we are prepared for it.”
While the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins aren’t one to place too much of an emphasis on regular-season standings (their past four Cups have come as division also-rans), this season perhaps more than ever could have them seeking home-ice advantage.
Only one team has more home victories than the Penguins’ 29, and no team that already is in the playoffs has fewer wins on the road (16).
“I don’t know if it’s more important this year than any other year,” Penguins wing Carl Hagelin said, “but I think you want to get home-ice advantage. You want your fans to help you win series. That’s what it comes down to.”