“Not Our Rival!” Or Are They?

During the 2003-04 NCAA basketball season the University of Maryland’s men’s basketball team played Duke University in three hard fought basketball games. Duke won the two regular season matchups, but when the two teams met in ACC Championship game Maryland won the game in overtime, ending Duke’s consecutive conference champion streak at five. These tough, scrappy games led many basketball analysts to hype their 2005-06 matchups as rivalries. The response from Duke fans was a chorus of “not our rival” chants and so the non-rivalry, rivalry began. Pittsburgh Penguins fans might take this same approach when the conversation turns to their matchups with the Columbus Blue Jackets. While we may never hear the “not our rival” chant coming from the seats of the Consol Energy Center I believe that most Penguins fans, if asked, would say that the Penguins rivals are the Flyers, the Islanders, the Capitals or more recently the Rangers, but not the Blue Jackets. However, they should be on that list because this matchup is becoming one of the Penguins, and one of the NHL’s, leading and most overlooked rivalry.

Opening Shots

One of the key components for a rivalry, but not an absolute necessity, is intra-division history. Following the 2013 NHL realignment, the Columbus Blue Jackets were the only team from the former Central Division, in the Western Conference, to join the Metropolitan Division, in the Eastern Conference. Therefore they entered the Metro with a relatively clean intra-division rivalry slate. So few rivals in fact that an August 2013 article from BlueJackets.com projected the top five potential rivalries of the 2013-14 season for the Blue Jackets and the Penguins were listed at #2, but this ranking was based primarily off of the “proximity” of the two cities. Besides proximity there was relatively little history between these two clubs. They had met only nine times over the past decade with Columbus winning only three of those nine games. The two teams did not even play each other during the 2012 – 2013 campaign leaving little room for a rivalry to grow.

Their first meeting as intra-division foes was on November 2, 2013 in the first game of a home and home. The seeds of a budding rival were sown that night. Strangely enough they were planted by current Penguin and former Blue Jacket Blake Comeau when he pugnaciously engaged Penguins defenseman Matt Niskanen at the end of the second period. The scrappy bout lasted less than fifteen seconds and might not have left an impression on any Penguins fan. Pittsburgh won the home and home by a combined score of 7 – 2, but the first shots were exchanged in this budding rivalry.

The two teams met again one month later and during this December 9 matchup the rivalry seed not only grew roots, but a whole stem of fists surfaced during the third period. It began just three minutes into the third when Blue Jackets Corey Tropp leveled Matt Niskanen. Penguins forward Zach Sill took umbrage to this hit and faced off with Tropp. Just six minutes later, and less than a minute after the Penguins took a 2-0 lead, the two clubs were at it again. Penguin’s defenseman Simon Despres and Blue Jackets forward Derek MacKenzie got roughing penalties during a scrum in front of the Penguins net. While they entered the penalty box Penguins Robert Bortuzzo exchanged words, and a body jab, with Columbus forward Brandon Dubinsky. Dubinsky responded with a slash on the wrist of Bortuzzo ending both their nights with misconduct penalties. The Penguins won the game and also their next meeting against Columbus at the end of that month. So, while they might have been considered a scrappy team to play against, by the end of 2013 I believe no Penguins fans considered the Blue Jackets to be a rival.

The Penguins and Blue Jackets did not meet again until March 28, but they picked up in the first period of that game where they left off in December. Just under nine minutes into the game Robert Bortuzzo squared off with Columbus forward Nick Foligno. Four minutes later Penguins forward Chris Kunitz and Blue Jackets defenseman Jack Johnson got roughing penalties for a scrum outside the Columbus net which prompted Penguins announcer Paul Steigerwald to proclaim “that looked like a lot like of what you would see in the Stanley Cup playoffs,” if only he knew. The Penguins finished off the season sweep of the Blue Jackets that night and also punched their playoff ticket with that victory. So even by the end of the regular season last year it appeared that the Blue Jackets were nothing more than a spirited yet aggressive squad and a true rivalry needs more than tough intra-division play and fights. A rivalry needs to have a history and memorable victories for both teams and there is no better place to get those than within a playoff series.

2014 Playoffs: First to Four (Games or Goals?) Wins

The Penguins earned the top seed in the Metropolitan Division and had the second most points in the Eastern Conference. Columbus entered the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs as the first of two wild card teams, just edging out the Detroit Red Wings. This was only Columbus’ second playoff appearance in the history of their franchise and being swept in the regular season by their first round opponent did not increase their odds of winning.

While I will not recap the entire series here, it is certainly a series that fans of both teams will remember for some time. Columbus jumped out to an early 3-1 lead in Game 1, but Pittsburgh persistently worked their way back to a tie by the end of the second period and got the game winner midway through the third taking Game 1 by a score of 4-3. Game 2 saw Pittsburgh take and then blow the 3-1 lead as this time the Blue Jackets obstinately refused to lose for the seventh straight time that season to the Penguins by tying the game late in the third and sending it to not one, but two overtimes. Columbus’ forward Matt Calvert notched the game winner one minute into the second overtime evening the series at one apiece.

Games 3 and 4 followed the same script with both teams’ again blowing 3-1 leads, the most dramatic of which came in Game 4. With just twenty-seven seconds left Pittsburgh goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury whiffed on the puck behind the net, which allowed Ryan Johansen to pass it back to Brandon Dubinsky for the game-tying goal.

With the series tied at 2-2 the speculation on the collapse Penguins began, but the team found a way to right the ship and won the next two games, winning the series 4-2. This was one of the most dramatic opening round series in recent years as four 3-1 leads were lost, the Penguins almost lost a 4-0 lead in Game 6 and five of the six games ended with the score 4-3. There were no fights in this series, it was the playoffs, but there were plenty of scrums and roughing penalties for both teams. Overall, Columbus wore Pittsburgh out during this series outhitting them a staggering 306 to 180 and I believe this series did a lot to not only fully formulate this Metropolitan rivalry, but also wear the Penguins down prior to their second round matchup with the Rangers.

2014-15: It’s Only Just Begun

The Penguins and Blue Jackets met for the first time in the 2014-15 season on Saturday night and once again there was no lack of fireworks or drama in this matchup. The Blue Jackets scored quickly in the first and the tension between the two clubs grew throughout the period. Then right at the 15 minute mark of the first period, during a faceoff in the Pittsburgh zone, Steve Downie and Matt Calvert shared a few stick shots and less than twenty seconds after play began Brandon Dubinsky charged Downie and a melee ensued. Two separate fights broke out as newly recalled Penguin Bobby Farnham took on Jordan Leopold and then Downie scuffled with Dalton Prout.

The second period saw more physical play and fighting after Corey Tropp charged Farnham and Bryan Rust took exception to this hit and confronted Tropp. Shortly after this Downie finally squared off with Dubinsky, a situation left unsettled in the first period, shifting momentum briefly towards the Penguins and less than two minutes later ex-Blue Jacket Blake Comeau tied the game at one. Pittsburgh took the lead on a short-handed goal by Kris Letang in the third and seemed poised to take full control of the game. However, every good rivalry has momentum swings and questionable calls that shift games and this rivalry got at least one more Saturday night when Penguins defenseman Simon Despres was whistled for obstruction against Boone Jenner giving Jenner a penalty shot which he netted to tie the game at two. I use the term questionable because this play was very similar to a hooking penalty Detroit defenseman Jakub Kindl was called for against Nick Spaling during their October 23 game, which did not result in a penalty shot. Either way, plays that lead to penalty shots certainly help build the dramatic moments for a rivalry and this series got one Saturday night.

The Blue Jackets took the lead late the third only to have the drama increase when Kris Letang, in his second game back from injury, tied the game with eleven seconds left sending the game to OT.

The game went to the only ending suitable for a rivalry, a shootout, which the Blue Jackets came out of victorious, winning the game, not surprisingly, 4-3. Now, some Penguins fans might say “but Crosby and Fleury did not play Saturday night” and this might be true, but for any Penguins fans who wish to claim that the Blue Jackets are “not our rival,” its best to think again.