Blue Jackets/Penguins: A Playoff Prelude

It’s all but settled.

The Columbus Blue Jackets and Pittsburgh Penguins seem set to meet in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Barring a miracle, these two I-70 rivals separated by just two and a half hours will spend a lot of time with each other in April.

The thing that is not yet settled is home-ice advantage. Tuesday night at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, these two rivals square off in a game that could decide who hosts a potential Game 7 in the first round. The Penguins come into Tuesday up a single point on the Blue Jackets. No matter if it’s regulation, overtime or a shootout, the winner of Tuesday’s game will stand second in the Metropolitan Division.

If these two teams finish tied in points, the team with more ROW will get home ice advantage. As of this writing, the Blue Jackets own the ROW tiebreaker 47-44 with four games remaining for each team. Needless to say, Tuesday’s showdown is huge.

And yet, we haven’t even started the playoffs yet.

Finding Good in the Playoff Structure

Say what you want about the current state of the playoff structure (trust me, there’s plenty of issues), the one thing this structure does allow for is more rivalries in the first two rounds. No more is this true than with the Blue Jackets and Penguins.

Ask any fan on both sides. They would love nothing more than to say that their team knocked the other out of the playoffs in round one. These fan bases HATE each other. There isn’t much love lost among the players either.

Just utter Brandon Dubinsky’s name to a Penguins fan and watch the reaction. Say Sidney Crosby around a Blue Jackets fan and watch the rage surface to the top. Dubinsky and Crosby have a history of interesting moments on the ice. Now we might get them together up to eight times in the next few weeks. Oh the drama.

Let’s not forget about players like Scott Hartnell who seems to save his best hockey for the Penguins. And remember when John Tortorella said the Penguins whine enough for everyone?

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The Blue Jackets/Penguins rivalry is one of the fiercest, yet most underrated rivalries in the NHL. Something memorable usually happens anytime these rivals get together. Remember the 2013-14 playoffs? How wacky was that? Leading 2-0 signaled your death. Being on the power play usually cost you a goal against. It was a series of huge momentum swings ultimately won by the Penguins in six games.

It was at that moment where the rivalry was born. Since then, it’s only grown. We’re now to the point where the Blue Jackets and Penguins are two of the three best teams in the NHL based on season points. For one to advance to the second round, they must go through their rival and one of the top teams in the league. It’s not often first-round matchups bring such drama. Blue Jackets/Penguins is no ordinary first-round matchup.

Tuesday night in Pittsburgh will give us all a sweet taste of what their playoff series will bring. Both teams want home ice and will do anything to get it. It sets up to have non-stop, edge of your seat action all night. Let’s get you ready for Tuesday from both sides.

Blue Jackets Headlines

The Blue Jackets enter Tuesday coming off a 3-2 loss to the Washington Capitals. That game put the Capitals in the driver’s seat for the President’s Trophy. They control their own destiny now.

As for the Blue Jackets, the bigger concern was the loss of stud defenseman Zach Werenski. He absorbed a hit from Alex Ovechkin and immediately left the game. Coach Tortorella told the media on Monday that he is day-to-day and left it at that. Aaron Portzline of the Columbus Dispatch reported that Werenski had no fractures, but other long-term injuries weren’t ruled out. Stay tuned on this one. Day-to-day seems to imply he could be ready for the playoffs, but nobody really knows what his status is.

The Blue Jackets called Sonny Milano up from AHL Cleveland on Monday. Tortorella said that Milano would enter the lineup on Tuesday but wouldn’t say who was coming out. Oliver Bjorkstrand is also expected to rejoin the lineup after missing time after the Roman Polak hit. With Lukas Sedlak week-to-week, I’d guess Lauri Korpikoski and Matt Calvert are the healthy scratches Tuesday. We’ll see when Tortorella speaks at 5:40.

Kyle Quincey will have a bigger role if Zach Werenski is out for an extended period. (Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports)

With Werenski out, a player like Kyle Quincey would most likely step into a top-4 defensive role. He’s been good since being acquired from the New Jersey Devils. We’ll see how Tortorella decides to match his pairs, but don’t be surprised if you see a Quincey/David Savard pair with Jack Johnson moving up to play with Seth Jones. If Tortorella doesn’t want Markus Nutivaara and Scott Harrington together, Quincey would play with one of them on the bottom pair.

The Blue Jackets are 2-0-1 against the Penguins this season. Gaining at least one point will ensure the Blue Jackets win the season series, which is the next tiebreaker if ROW is tied. Tuesday is about finding a way to win.

Conor Sheary leads the Penguins with six game-winning goals this season. (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

Penguins Headlines

The Penguins completed a season sweep of the Carolina Hurricanes Sunday by a 3-2 score. Take one look at the Penguins goal scorers from Sunday. Jake Guentzel, Scott Wilson and Conor Sheary all scored for the Penguins. They’re a dangerous team because their kids can produce. Guentzel now has 13 goals while Sheary has 22 goals.

The Penguins are starting to get healthy, but still have a lengthy injury report. Here is their current injured list.

  • Trevor Daley (Knee, 19 games missed)
  • Carl Hagelin (lower-body, 12 games missed)
  • Chris Kunitz (lower-body, 1 game missed)
  • Kris Letang (upper-body, 19 games missed)
  • Olli Maatta (hand, 22 games missed)
  • Evgeni Malkin (upper body, 9 games missed)
  • Tom Sestito (upper-body, 7 games missed)

The Penguins have overcome several injuries and are still near the top of the standings. They use the next man up mentality and keep plugging away. The Blue Jackets will need to do the same if Werenski is out an extended period.

The Blue Jackets need especially watch how the last 40 minutes goes. The Penguins have scored 62 goals in the first period, but have 95 goals in the second and 99 goals in the third. They save their best for last. If the Blue Jackets hope to win, they must control the neutral zone in order to slow the speed of the Penguins.

There you have it. The prelude in Pittsburgh is set with the best still yet to come. The Blue Jackets get to take their best shot at knocking the defending champs off. The Penguins believe they can knock the Blue Jackets off while avoiding the Capitals in the first round. Enjoy what is about to unfold. For the Blue Jackets, the playoffs could be a franchise defining moment for many years to come.