Heading into critical home-and-home series, Penguins have Blue Jackets’ number | TribLIVE.com

Heading into critical home-and-home series, Penguins have Blue Jackets’ number

Jonathan Bombulie
Pittsburgh Penguins’ Evgeni Malkin, center, of Russia, skates between Columbus Blue Jackets’ Nick Foligno, left, and Boone Jenner during the third period of an NHL hockey game Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019, in Columbus, Ohio. The Penguins beat the Blue Jackets 5-2.

There’s a big home-and-home series that could have a massive impact on the Eastern Conference playoff race coming up in the next few days.

On Thursday, the hammer hosts the nail. On Saturday, the windshield visits the bug.

OK, that’s not what it says on the official NHL schedule. It says the Pittsburgh Penguins will host the Columbus Blue Jackets on Thursday, and the teams will play again in Ohio’s capital two days later. But given the recent results between the clubs, it’s easy to frame it that way.

The Penguins have won seven straight meetings against the Blue Jackets, including a pair of victories by a combined score of 9-4 this season.

“We knew if we wanted to advance in the playoffs, we were going to have to beat these guys. We had two playoff series against them that didn’t go well,” said defenseman Jack Johnson, who signed with the Penguins in July after spending the previous six-plus seasons with the Blue Jackets. “But I don’t know what their mindset is now, and I don’t care.”

It’s possible the Penguins have had the Blue Jackets’ number over the last few seasons because of a style matchup. When it comes down to crunch time, the Penguins’ speed-based attack has finished more chances than the Blue Jackets, who focus a little more on grit and physicality.

Johnson isn’t so sure of that, though.

“Everyone plays a pretty similar style of play. No one’s reinventing the wheel. It’s a copycat league, pretty much,” Johnson said. “It really just comes down to the individuals executing the plays.”

There’s no doubt that’s true.

Jake Guentzel, for example, owns the Blue Jackets. Counting regular season and playoffs, he has 12 goals and 17 points in 14 career games against them.

“I just think you know it’s going to be a battle between two teams that don’t like each other, and it’s going to be a hard-fought game,” Guentzel said. “We’re both fighting in the standings right by each other. It’s going to be a hostile game. As a player, this is a game you want to be a part of.”

Then there’s the matter of goaltending.

The Penguins have tortured Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky relentlessly over the past two seasons. He’s 0-2-3 with a .882 save percentage against them. When facing the rest of the league over the same span, his save percentage is .916.

The numbers sure paint the picture that the Penguins have Bobrovsky’s number, though Matt Murray isn’t sure the idea of one team having a hex on a particular goaltender is a real thing.

“You see so many different plays and so many different shots,” Murray said. “You’re not seeing anything you haven’t seen before. I don’t think it makes a difference.”

Whether it’s a real thing or a small-sample size phenomenon, Columbus coach John Tortorella has a serious goaltending decision on his hands.

The Blue Jackets picked up Keith Kinkaid from New Jersey at the trade deadline, and he’s 6-1-1 with a .925 save percentage against the Penguins over the past two seasons.

Starting Kinkaid on Thursday and/or Saturday would be tantamount to publicly admitting his No. 1 goalie has a Penguins problem, even if it gives his team a better chance to win.

At the risk of over-dramatizing the decision, the fortunes of two teams hang in the balance.

The Penguins, Carolina and Montreal are the last teams in the Eastern Conference playoff field at the moment, tied with 79 points. The Blue Jackets are two points out.

“This time of year, you’ve got to trust your habits and trust what you do out there, regardless of who’s playing in net,” Crosby said. “You’re always aware of tendencies and things like that, but at this point in the year, you’ve got to believe in what you do and what gives you success.”

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review assistant sports editor. You can contact Jonathan by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .

Categories: Sports | Penguins
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