Blue Jackets. Penguins. Need we say any more?
The two Metropolitan Division rivals meet twice in the next three days with potential playoff positioning on the line. Although the season doesn’t end Saturday, the results of these two games could go a long way in determining how the rest of the season will go.
The Penguins have owned the Blue Jackets of late, going 10-1-1 against them since Mike Sullivan took over as head coach, including a 5-2 win at Nationwide Arena on Feb 26.
The Blue Jackets by the slimmest of margins came out of New Jersey with a 2-1 shootout win. The Penguins also won in overtime last time out defeating the Florida Panthers 3-2.
What are we watching for Thursday? Here are five things we will keep our eyes on.
Columbus Goalie Watch
Things started off with a bang at the Blue Jackets’ morning skate. All expected players came out, except for Sergei Bobrovsky. Then newcomer Keith Kinkaid went to the starter’s net. What in the what?
Finally Bobrovsky appeared 11 minutes after the skate started but didn’t assume a net. Both Kinkaid and Joonas Korpisalo occupied a net with Korpisalo doing most of the work against the power play.
So who’s going to start? Coach John Tortorella decided to go with Korpisalo. Was this decision influenced by Bobrovsky’s struggles? Tortorella said no citing this was to give Bobrovsky a rest after a heavy workload while working on parts of his game. Kinkaid will dress as the backup.
This is a very interesting development. Bobrovsky is feeling good after playing well Tuesday in Newark, but now you go away from your number one in your most important game of the season to date. I just wonder the message this sends to the players in the room and to Bobrovsky. Let’s see how they handle it.
Level of Blue Jackets Confidence
Tuesday in Newark was one of the worst overall performances I’ve seen from the Blue Jackets in a long time. They could not get much going and New Jersey was taking it to them, even getting a late third period power play in a 1-1 game. Of course the Blue Jackets did win, but you can tell there was something off.
What is it? Is it confidence? Yep. Is it expectations? Maybe. Whatever is all ailing these Blue Jackets, they are right in the thick of this race and can make it very interesting if they at least win one of these two games.
Imagine where their confidence would go. If the Blue Jackets were to win two games, that would be a huge statement to the rest of the league that they’re ready for a run. But if they lose them, the narrative is a complete 180. Whatever confidence was left would shrink even further while questions would continue to come.
I have to be honest. I could feel the tension in the room like a thick cloud. Something is going through this team. They’re being tested. They’re encountering a new situation for them.
What I am watching is how they respond to the adversity. This is why you play hockey. You want these moments. Some handle this better than others. Who is going to rise up and make a statement? Who’s going to say enough is enough? Who is made for these moments and who folds like a dollar bill? No better way to find out than to play against the Penguins in a huge game.
Oliver Bjorkstrand Speaks
I caught up with Oliver Bjorkstrand after the morning skate to get his perspective on where things stand. The Blue Jackets had an off-day Wednesday in Pittsburgh. I asked him if the off day was a good thing for the team to take their mind off of hockey.
“I think so”, Bjorkstrand said. “It’s been a while since we’ve had a day off. We got to recharge. Obviously it wasn’t the best game the day before.”
What happened in New Jersey?
“They (the Devils) worked hard and out-competed us. I think what we need to focus on is the compete level and winning 50/50 battles.”
What has to happen Thursday?
“We have to get off to a better start. If you allow Crosby or Malkin space, even if they’re not playing well, you don’t have much of a chance.”
Bjorkstrand is spot on. The Penguins especially against the Blue Jackets start fast. Add that to the fact Columbus allows on average over a goal/game in the first period this season. If the Blue Jackets have any hope of winning, they have to stay steady in the first 10 minutes. If this is 2-0 or worse in the first period, it might be a free fall.
Blue Jackets’ Formula For Winning
What has to happen besides a good start? How about a full effort for 60 minutes? As they say, yesterday’s gone, yesterday’s gone. Don’t start, thinking about tomorrow. Now that the song is stuck in your head, it illustrates perfectly what the Blue Jackets have to do.
The past is done. They can’t change it. Tomorrow is not here yet. They just need a win Thursday to keep pace. How do they win?
First off, everyone has to be better. That starts with simplifying their game. It sounds so easy but given the lack of confidence and amount of pressure around them, it’s not as easy as you think. Players want to make things happen when given the chance. That leads to forced plays, turnovers and mistakes. The Blue Jackets need to be patient, take the simple play and keep within their structure. They are skilled enough to get goals when given the chance. But patience is key.
Second off, Korpisalo needs to be at his best. If he allows soft goals, there goes your confidence. He needs to give the Blue Jackets a chance to win.
Finally, convert mistakes. The Penguins have had some inconsistent moments. If you hope to win, you have to make the Penguins pay for turnovers and penalties.
A View of the Penguins
The Penguins enter Thursday just two points ahead of the Blue Jackets in the standings. Things haven’t been all rosy for them. They’re just 6-5-0 at PPG Paints Arena in their last 11 games there.
But the Penguins have dominated the Blue Jackets. Why? They get off to fast starts. And they get key contributions from multiple sources. Crosby doesn’t have a lot of goals against the Blue Jackets of late but he is making a ton of plays. Malkin averages over a point per game in his career against the Blue Jackets. Jake Guentzel is almost a goal per game. Phil Kessel can explode at any time.
The defense is the question mark. Kris Letang is day-to-day. If there’s an area that could be exploited, it’s the blue line. Can the Blue Jackets get consistent pressure against the Penguins and make them defend more often than not? All too often, the Blue Jackets have chased the game. They can’t afford to do that in this set of games.
The season wont be decided in these two games, but momentum certainly will be. Will the Penguins continue their dominance or will the Blue Jackets finally break out from their slumber and make a statement? No more excuses. The games will do all the talking.
I am a fully credentialed writer who covers the Columbus Blue Jackets, Cleveland Monsters and Erie Otters as well as the Ontario Hockey League and NHL Draft. The 2021-22 season will mark eight seasons with the Hockey Writers. I am also the site’s Credentials Manager.