Only two points separated the Pittsburgh Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets for eighth place in the Eastern Conference standings, so their Metropolitan Division game had Stanley Cup playoff implications.
That their meeting Thursday night at PPG Paints Arena was the first of back-to-back games between the division rivals — they play again Saturday night in Columbus — only raised the stakes.
These two points were critical.
And the Penguins played like it from the start in a 3-0 victory over the Blue Jackets.
1. Power Phil
The suspense of when Phil Kessel would end his goal-scoring drought lasted beyond his power-play tally.
After 16 games without a goal — the longest stretch of his career — Kessel scored his 22nd of the season on a behind-the-net feed from Evgeni Malkin at 2 minutes, 22 seconds of the first period.
The PPG Paints Arena crowd had cheered Kessel on Tuesday against Florida after he showed visible frustration on the video board after failing to score on a turnaround redirect.
So the Penguins fans were ready to roar when Kessel scored, and reacted with a standing ovation.
But the cheering soon changed to jeering when Columbus coach John Tortorella challenged the goal. The claim was goaltender interference by Patric Hornqvist, but after a two-minute video review, the call on the ice upheld after video review.
2. Power ball
The Penguins entered the game with the NHL’s fifth-best power play (25.4 percent) and had scored on four of eight chances in the previous three games.
Kessel’s goal, which came after a tripping penalty by Blue Jackets defenseman Scott Harrington, improved that to 5 of 9.
As good as the power play is, it can be frustrating to watch.
When the Penguins got a second power-play chance at 12:50 of the first period after Adam McQuaid’s high-sticking penalty, they never got a shot on goal.
Kessel and Malkin had turnovers while trying to carry the puck into the offensive zone, which is like watching basketball players attempting to dribble through a zone defense.
And the Penguins blew a chance to increase their lead to 2-0.
3. Bad break
But seeing Malkin or Sidney Crosby on a breakaway is an absolute thing of beauty — unless you’re the goalie.
It’s a coin flip which one is more dangerous. Crosby has the Winter Classic winner to his credit, but Malkin might have an edge because of his creativity.
Imagine what was going through Columbus goalie Joonas Korpisalo’s mind when Malkin came skating at him, with Crosby trailing the play, early in the second period.
Malkin made one too many dekes, however, favoring his forehand over an open backhand. Korpisalo stopped the shot, and defenseman David Savard smothered Crosby to prevent a rebound.
4. Net returns
Tortorella raised eyebrows when he bypassed Sergei Bobrovsky and Keith Kinkaid to go with Korpisalo in goal, especially in such a high-stakes divisional game.
To sit the starter is one thing, as Tortorella said he wanted to buy Bobrovsky a day off after playing in back-to-back games Saturday and Sunday and again Tuesday at New Jersey.
It would have made sense to play Kinkaid over Bobrovsky, given Bobrovsky is 0-2-3 against the Penguins the past two seasons and Kinkaid is 6-1-1 with a .925 save percentage in that span.
But going with Korpisalo was a head-scratcher.
He was 0-2-0 with an .886 save percentage and 4.09 goals-against average in his career against the Penguins.
Yet Korpisalo gave up only the Kessel power-play goal in the first period and stopped 17 of 18 shots in the second, including Malkin’s breakaway and an Erik Gudbranson slap shot.
5. Two-man disadvantage
Korpisalo started the third period strong, making some spectacular saves. The best came when the Penguins had a five-on-three advantage.
The biggest stop, however, was by the post.
Justin Schultz had a chance to give the Penguins a 3-0 lead when his shot from the top of the right circle hit the right post. Korpisalo stopped the rebound attempt by reaching his glove behind his backside while sprawled in the crease.
The bad news: The Penguins are 0 for 7 on five-on-three chances this season.
The good news: They are 3-0 against the Blue Jackets.