Every game down the stretch could have been classified as the next biggest game for the Columbus Blue Jackets. Thursday's home regular-season finale against the Pittsburgh Penguins classified as just that.
Each team entered play deadlocked inside the Metropolitan Division with identical 45-29-6 records and 96 points. The only difference was the Penguins had already clinched a playoff spot. They also came in with a 3-0 edge in the regular-season series, having held an 11-point advantage in the standings the last time these clubs met Feb. 18.
However, a Jackets win on Thursday would play a pivotal role in deciding home-ice advantage for the first round of the playoffs, most likely starring these clubs for a second-consecutive season and third overall.
The Jackets came into the day needing just a point or Panthers loss over their remaining two games.
Josh Anderson—20 shifts, 9:44, two shots on goal, +1—made his return from a knee injury sustained Feb. 26 against the Capitals, which Columbus went 14-3-0 in his absence over that span, the best mark in the NHL. That date and streak coincide with the NHL trade deadline and the arrival of Ian Cole from Ottawa by way of Pittsburgh, with whom Cole spent three-plus seasons with and won two Stanley Cups.
Yeah. This game featured all the drama and storylines you crave. Four first period goals between the clubs set the electric scene from Nationwide Arena.
Pittsburgh held an early 6-2 shots advantage but Zach Werenski scored his 16th goal of the season at 5:11 of period one with Pierre-Luc Dubois and Artemi Panarin picking up assists. Panarin now rides a five-game point streak after coming in with eight points over his previous three games.
Columbus came in for 6-for-11 (54.5%) in their last three games on the power play and they got the games’ first chance at 11:51 when Patric Hornqvist went off for boarding. Werenski nearly had a second goal after Thomas Vanek faked a slapshot dump-in from the center-ice boards as he chipped a perfect pass to Werenski who came in through the center and was stopped by Matt Murray.
That power play was cut short when Seth Jones went off for tripping Tom Kuhnackl before he could get loose for a breakaway, all setting up the No. 1 power play unit in the NHL to strike and tie the game at one apiece. Phil Kessel unleashed his 32nd on the wrist shot and getting assists by Sidney Crosby and Justin Shultz.
Columbus regained the lead with the play developing from the defensive zone. Ryan Murray’s pass out was intercepted but Jack Johnson was able to take possession and chip the puck off the boards which Matt Calvert corralled and delivered the backhand past Murray at 12:39.
But you didn’t think that would be it, did you?
Hornqvist scored his 28th of the year at 15:35 after just throwing puck on net from the slot, kind of just somehow finding its way through Bobrovsky.
The Penguins outshot Columbus 17-10 through one.
In the second period, Columbus capitalized on their second man-advantage with Boone Jenner scoring in the slot, scooping up the pass from Vanek. Sonny Milano also added an assist.
The Jackets’ second power play of the second period—Bryan Rust tripped Dubois at 9:01—generated three shots, monopolizing much of offensive zone time in Pittsburgh’s end. Sidney Crosby was visibly in pain, hunched over on the bench after taking a slash by David Savard but remained in the game.
(And you know what—there was no penalty!)
Hornqvist would leave the game but return and Kessel also got dinged.
Columbus finished ahead of the Penguins 11-10 in shots, Pittsburgh with the overall 28-21 advantage, and the Jackets led on the scoreboard 3-2. The period ended on the penalty kill, which the Penguins were 1-of-2 on the night at that juncture, and Columbus quickly killed off the penalty as the opening seconds of the third came underway.
Must leads always be hard to keep against this team?
Though the Jackets killed off the penalty that spilled over into the final frame, Pittsburgh worked another power play just 96 seconds in, and it was Kris Letang with the equalizer. Evgeni Malkin and Hornqvist with assists.
Cam Atkinson has played a huge part since his return in late January and he played the part on this night.
His goal near the midway point of the third, his 24th of the season and 11th tally in as many games now put Columbus back ahead for the fourth time of the evening. Dubois also picked up his second assist, and in the process, became the franchise-leader for rookie scoring. His 48th point surpassed Werenski’s 47 set a season ago. Dubois is on a career-high eight-game point streak.
Ian Cole went down the tunnel after blocking another shot that stung but also returned.
You might say some of the goals that have made their way past Sergei Bobrovsky have been fluky but those are the kinds of goals that seem to occur on a nightly basis in playoff hockey.
Those are the kinds of goals that seem to elude Bobrovsky against teams like the Penguins.
At the 12:16 mark of the period, Conor Sheary was stopped by the post after splitting the seams of the defense up the ice. The initial play stopped on the doorstep, Sheary banked the rebound off Sergei, and again, this game is tied at four.
The Jackets’ net-minder still made his presence felt on the night with key stops in the waning minutes and seconds and 42 saves for the game. He still needs to be much better.
With things tied at four heading to overtime, the third such game this season between the teams, the 97th point meant Columbus clinched a playoff berth, and for the first time in franchise history, it’s consecutive playoff appearances from Central Ohio.
I’m not going to show the goal.
Kessel won it for Pittsburgh in overtime. The Penguins sweep the season series 4-0. With three of the four games against Pittsburgh played beyond regulation, that reads as 0-3-1.
Home-ice for the first round is still up for grabs as Columbus heads to Nashville Saturday at 8:00 pm EST. The Penguins battle the Senators Friday night in Pittsburgh.