Pens Send Blue Jackets a Message That Resonates

The Penguins’ ability Tuesday night to score gritty goals against the Blue Jackets is a development that will have an impact in both locker rooms.

The Penguins’ mission entering the regular season’s final week was to secure, if not the top spot in the Metropolitan Division, then the next-best thing.

Since doing so would earn the Pens not only a second-place finish but also home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs, the dangling carrot wasn’t an insignificant enticement.

The visit to PPG Paints Arena on Tuesday night by Columbus, the Pens’ presumptive first-round opponent, made regular-season game No. 79 (NHL game No. 1181) all the more intriguing.

“I’m not sure if it’s a statement game but it’s definitely a benchmark game,” Pens winger Bryan Rust had observed before the fourth regular-season meeting between the teams. “A lot of signs point to us playing them in the first round. If that does happen, that’s definitely a game that we gotta go out there and show ’em what we got.”

In the wake of the Penguins holding up their end of that equation via a satisfying 4-1 triumph, even more signs point to a hosting of the Blue Jackets next week when the Pens kick off the postseason portion of their Stanley Cup defense.

But that said, the Penguins’ first regulation victory over the Blue Jackets and second overall in four tries wasn’t just about the Penguins finally showing the Blue Jackets what they have.

It was also about the Penguins reminding themselves of what it’s going to take, next week and beyond.

The Penguins are flashier and the Blue Jackets are nastier.

The Penguins can score and the Blue Jackets can defend.

And those dynamics won’t change in either home-ice venue in the playoffs, even if both teams are reinforced by the return of some of the significant components that were unavailable on both sides on Tuesday night.

Sidney Crosby, Conor Sheary and Phil Kessel will do what they usually do, which is shoot the puck.

And Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky will do what he invariably does, which is stop the ones he can see and the ones that don’t change direction on the doorstep of his crease.

And that means there’s a good chance the series will ultimately be decided by who can score the type of gritty goals playoff hockey often demands.

The Penguins’ ability to score those against the Blue Jackets was on display on Tuesday night, a development that has the potential to resonate in both locker rooms.

Bobrovsky made more spectacular saves, but the Penguins were better in front of both nets.

And because of that, they eventually solved the NHL’s most-dominant netminder enough times to coast home.

Carter Rowney on a tip-in.

Patric Hornqvist converting a pass that first rolled off the blade of Columbus defenseman Seth Jones.

Brian Dumoulin on a wrap-around that bounced in off Columbus winger Cam Atkinson.

Jake Guentzel with an appendage deflection from the middle of a mass of humanity on top of Bobrovsky that included Crosby and defenseman David Savard and center Brandon Dubinsky of Columbus.

Get used to it, there’s more where that came from coming up.

The impending hostilities might also include a little fireworks between Crosby and Dubinsky (Columbus-Pittsburgh encounters usually do).

And the Pens will have to be accepting of rather than distracted by the Jackets’ grinding, abrasive game and the after-the-whistle tactics they’re certain to employ. 

But as much as anything else, it’s going to be about Hornqvist and Savard battling for supremacy in the slot at one end, and Ian Cole and Jackets winger Nick Foligno doing the same in the other.

“What I love about our players and our team is I know that we’re brave,” head coach Mike Sullivan maintained late Tuesday night. “I know we play with courage. I know we can play through things.

“This team has shown an ability to do that not only this year but last year most importantly when the stakes were high at the most important time of the year.”

It’s that time of the year again.

And the Penguins seem just as committed to doing what’s necessary.

“I like the way our team is tracking,” Sullivan continued. “We’re starting to really establish the playoff mindset that we need to have at this time of year.

“Most specifically it’s about thankless jobs. It’s puck battles, it’s wall play, it’s your willingness to get inside the (face-off) dots and go to the net. It’s playing through a cross-check or whatever it may be. Our guys are well aware of it, they’re well-accustomed to it, they understand it.”

If the Penguins showed the Blue Jackets anything on Tuesday night, it’s that they’re ready, willing and able to play that game.

Home or away.

Categories: Mike Prisuta’s Sports Section