Pens having their own ‘Groundhog Day’ with Columbus
The Associated Press
PITTSBURGH — Mike Sullivan isn’t looking for an explanation. The Pittsburgh Penguins coach isn’t sure there is one that can adequately describe why his team dominates the Columbus Blue Jackets.
“All I can tell you is, every game we play them is a hard-fought battle and the margin for error is slim,” Sullivan said.
And every game ends the same: with the Penguins exchanging high-fives on their way to the dressing room while the Blue Jackets trudge off wondering how another one got away.
Matt Murray stopped 25 shots for his 10th career shutout and the Penguins opened a pivotal home-and-home with the Columbus by rolling to a 3-0 victory on Thursday night.
“We’re finding ways to win,” Sullivan said with a shrug.
The Penguins always seem to when the Blue Jackets are on the other side of the ice. Pittsburgh has won eight straight over Columbus. And while the Blue Jackets will get another shot at the Penguins at Nationwide Arena on Saturday night, Pittsburgh put on a defensive clinic in front of Murray to drop Columbus to just 2-4 since the trade deadline.
“I think we need something good to happen,” Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella said. “They blocked 24 shots. We have a lot of shot attempts and a lot of good things, but we don’t score a goal.”
For the first time in more than a month, that wasn’t an issue for Penguins forward Phil Kessel, who ended a 16-game scoring drought when he beat surprise starter Joonas Korpisalo just 2:22 into the first period to give Pittsburgh a lead it would never relinquish. The crowd erupted when he banked a shot from in tight off a sprawled Korpisalo and into the net for his first goal since Jan. 30.
“I got lucky tonight,” Kessel said. “I thought it was going to come a little earlier than it did. It took me a little while. But hopefully now I can get a hot streak going or something.”
Nick Bjugstad collected his ninth of the season for Pittsburgh. Sidney Crosby took a high stick from Columbus’ Boone Jenner in the third period but returned to add an empty-net goal and extend his goal streak to six consecutive games as the Penguins created a little bit of breathing room between themselves and the Blue Jackets in the race for a playoff spot in the crowded Eastern Conference.
Pittsburgh moved into third place in the Metropolitan Division, dropping idle Carolina to the top wild-card spot. The Blue Jackets are currently on the outside looking in. While Korpisalo overcame his sluggish start to finish with 28 saves, his teammates couldn’t get anything by Murray.
Making his sixth straight start, Murray was solid. So were the guys in front of him. Pittsburgh’s defensemen — including recently acquired Erik Gudbranson — prevented Columbus from creating consistent pressure by making sure Murray had a clear line of vision.
“They’ve been stepping up big time, clearing guys out from the front and blocking shots,” Murray said. “They’re just sacrificing a lot. I can’t say enough about those guys back there.”
Tortorella tried to downplay the importance of his team’s final two meetings with the Penguins, though he made a curious decision to start Korpisalo — winless since Jan. 15 — over No. 1 goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, claiming the two-time Vezina Trophy winner needed to get some rest with the stretch looming.
The change in net did little to change the Blue Jackets’ fortunes. Defenseman Scott Harrington was called for tripping barely two minutes in and Pittsburgh pounced. Evgeni Malkin collected a shot behind the Blue Jackets’ net and fed Kessel at the far post.
Tortorella decided to challenge the goal, claiming goaltender’s interference, but the call stood and Tortorella burned his only timeout before most of his players had even broken a sweat. Murray kept the Blue Jackets at bay and Bjugstad finished off a sequence of extended pressure by collecting a pass from Jared McCann then pivoting into space in the slot before beating Korpisalo between the legs with 1:13 to go in the second for his fourth goal since being brought over in a trade with Florida on Feb. 1.
The chippy play between the rivals separated by three hours geographically but by considerably more in terms of stature perked up at times. Pittsburgh’s Garrett Wilson and Columbus captain Nick Foligno received fighting majors in the second period following a brawl that left Wilson’s forehead bloody. Jenner received a double-minor for high sticking Crosby early in the third.
Crosby returned to finish off Columbus with his 31st, leaving the Blue Jackets with one last chance to solve the Penguins this season.
“Scoring and not scoring are both contagious,” Columbus center Matt Duchene said. “All of us are obviously a little snake bit right now.”
NOTES: Penguins D Kris Letang missed his fifth straight game with an upper-body injury. … Pittsburgh is 9-1 while wearing its yellow third jerseys. … The Blue Jackets were 0 for 3 on the power play. The Penguins were 1 for 5. Malkin’s assist on Kessel’s goal pushed his career point total to 997.
Blue Jackets: Columbus has issues at Nationwide Arena. The Blue Jackets are just 17-16-2 at home this season.
Penguins: Pittsburgh hasn’t lost on the road to Columbus in the regular season since Feb. 17, 2017 (4-0).