“It’s gonna be basically a playoff game.”
That was Bryan Rust‘s low-risk prediction for Thursday’s Penguins-Blue Jackets tilt, set for 7 p.m. Thursday night in Columbus, Ohio.
The Penguins can clinch home-ice advantage in the first round with a regulation win. The Jackets can secure a playoff berth with a single point. So, there are real stakes for the imminent faceoff at Nationwide Arena.
Then there’s the intangible ‘set the tone’ kind of stuff that adds intrigue for two likely best-of-seven opponents. The two sides can size each other up before what would be their third playoff showdown in five years if it happens. Sports Club Stats has the odds of Pens-Jackets Part III at 55 percent entering Thursday’s action.
“It just makes these games more fun,” Rust said Wednesday after practice in Cranberry Township. “Just developing that rivalry and getting that hatred for them, and the have the same feeling towards us. It just ramps up the intensity and makes everyone play a little bit harder.”
The smiles around the dressing room at the Lemieux Sports Complex told the tale. After six months of regular-season assignments, the two-time defending champs are — as a group — absurdly ready for the invigorating stage of the playoffs.
Thursday night won’t quite reach that level, but considering the usual tenor of Pittsburgh-Columbus and the fact that the Blue Jackets’ natural default is to play all-out, this will be as good of a playoff warmup as could be conjured.
“They already are a physical team,” said Riley Sheahan, who has experienced three editions of this Interstate 70 feud. “They have some big bodies. I think the importance of the game tomorrow will amplify it, too. It’ll be physical. It’ll be high intensity. I’m sure the crowd will be into it. It’ll be a fun game.”
No offense to the rabid hockey fans of central Ohio, but the continued big-brother, little-brother dynamic between the Penguins and Blue Jackets ensures that the capacity crowd at Nationwide Arena will be in full throat. This group of Jackets is still trying to prove itself in this league, and that feeling engages the Columbus faithful in a way that only the Stanley Cup playoffs can inspire from most Penguins fans.
“We know that building’s tough to play in,” Justin Schultz said. “It’s gonna be a playoff atmosphere so it’s gonna be a fun game to play in, for sure.”
It doesn’t hurt that the Blue Jackets are piping hot. Once uncertain to make the playoffs, they’ve gone 13-1-1 since the first week of March, catching the Penguins in the standings.
While their four-goal Tuesday rally to beat Detroit spilled into overtime, the Jackets have needed extra time in just three of their wins during their impressive climb. (As Dan Kingerski wrote, it’s not all Ian Cole, either.)
But we’ve seen the Blue Jackets go streaking before. Just last season, they reeled off 16 wins in a row. But this edition has more offensive dynamism, led by former Chicago star Artemi Panarin. This is no slight toward Brandon Saad, but Panarin has given Columbus something it didn’t have last spring: Someone opponents have to plan around.
With 80 points, Panarin has already set the single-season club record. Turns out he doesn’t need Patrick Kane on his line to be a game-breaker.
“He’s one of those elite players,” Sullivan said of the 26-year-old Panarin. “He can finish. He’s shown an ability to score goals in this league and he’s a great playmaker. He’s a very good players. We’re gonna have to have an awareness when he’s on the ice. We’re gonna have to make sure we force him to have to play a goal-line-to-goal-line game and not give him any freebies.”
Should be enough to inspire the Penguins to play their best game, right? Sure sounds like it, even if Derick Brassard will remain a very notable absence with a groin injury suffered a week ago.
The regular season technically ends Friday against the Senators, in a game that might mean something in the standings, but Thursday will be the true warmup lap for the playoff run.
“Just get excited to play in the playoffs,” Jake Guentzel said. “It’s gonna be a playoff feeling. It’s what you want to play in as a player.”