Mark Madden: Penguins helping ensure Blue Jackets lose ‘all-in’ bet
As the NHL’s Feb. 25 trade deadline beckoned, Columbus was half-expected to trade goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky and winger Artemi Panarin, each in the final season of his contract. A rebuilding of sorts seemed likely.
But there were no obvious suitors for Bobrovsky. The legit Stanley Cup contenders all have legit goalies.
So the Blue Jackets went in the opposite direction. They acquired forwards Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel, defenseman Adam McQuaid and goalie Keith Kinkaid, all rentals. The Blue Jackets went “all in.”
But the question begs: “All in” for what? What can realistically be achieved?
Columbus, even after those additions, is no better than a marginal playoff team — as evidenced by the Jackets’ presence in the margin of the Eastern Conference postseason talk. They were two points out of a wild-card spot before last night’s action. They are 2-4 since the trade deadline.
It’s also evidenced by losing eight straight regular-season games to the Penguins. (The Penguins also won a playoff series vs. Columbus, four games to one, within that timeline.)
It’s an age of parity. The NHL uses a salary cap.
How do the Penguins win eight in a row against a team that made the playoffs in each of the last two seasons and trails them by a mere four points now?
It’s a question the Penguins coaches and players hesitate to answer. The teams play again tonight at Columbus, after all.
“I’m not sure there’s a valid explanation,” coach Mike Sullivan said after the host Penguins topped Columbus, 3-0, on Thursday.
“Every game we play them is a hard-fought battle, and the margin for error is slim. Most of the games are close. They’re a real good team. Fortunately, we’re finding ways to win. But I don’t think there’s a real valid answer.”
Penguins defenseman Jack Johnson played for Columbus from 2012-18. He was on the losing side in the first five games of the current streak, and in the aforementioned playoff series.
Johnson seemed uncomfortable discussing the Penguins-Blue Jackets dynamic.
“I don’t know if I have a good answer for you,” Johnson said Thursday. “We played well tonight.”
Do the Penguins have a lot of confidence playing Columbus?
Johnson: “We have a lot of confidence playing anybody.”
Spoken like a 13-year NHL vet and a veteran of many interviews, too.
If there’s any reason for the Penguins’ subjugation of the Blue Jackets, it might be their pronounced edge at center, which Columbus alleviated only slightly by getting Duchene. But Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin dominate a lot of teams.
It might also be Bobrovsky’s failure against the Penguins, which was doubtless a factor in Columbus starting backup Joonas Korpisalo on Thursday.
Bobrovsky has zero wins and five losses with a 3.87 goals-against average and a .882 save percentage against the Penguins dating through last season. Not good. His numbers were nearly identical in the 2017 playoff series loss to the Penguins: 1-4, 3.88 goals-against average, .882 save percentage.
If the Penguins aren’t in Bobrovsky’s head, they are certainly in his net.
If the Blue Jackets can’t find a way to end the streak and win Saturday, they might board that train to Palookaville less than two weeks after going “all in.”
In the era of tanking — pioneered in this zip code in 1984 — Columbus general manager Jarmo Keikalainen has been commended for going for it.
The motivation might have been on a lower plane than winning a Stanley Cup.
The Blue Jackets are the only NHL team to never have won a playoff series. If that embarrassment hasn’t created an air of desperation in the organization, it should.
It’s no surprise Kekalainen’s effort is failing. He acquired Duchene, Dzingel, Kinkaid and McQuaid, not Giordano, Kucherov, McDavid and Price. Having a lot of one-foot-out-the-door guys probably lessens the locker room’s investment.
Columbus didn’t play terribly Thursday. They killed a five-on-three for 1:55 early in the third period, then used the momentum created to generate lots of pressure and a few excellent chances only to be stymied by Penguins goaltender Matt Murray, who made 25 saves to post the shutout.
In the end, Columbus lost to the Penguins.
It’s what Columbus does.