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Penguins and Blue Jackets on track for what could be epic first round matchup

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PITTSBURGH — It is not one of the NHL’s biggest rivalries, but every time the Pittsburgh Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets get together it becomes increasingly clear that the two teams simply do not like each other very much. Or at all.  This is especially true when it comes to forwards Sidney Crosby and Brandon Dubinsky because there always seems to be something that happens in their games.

That was the case again on Friday night in Pittsburgh where the Penguins were 4-3 overtime winners against the Blue Jackets — after letting a two-goal third period lead slip away — thanks to a two-goal night from Phil Kessel, including the winner.

For the Penguins, it was a big response following the first meeting of the season when they were blown out in Columbus when the Blue Jackets were on their way to 16-game winning streak.

Penguins forward Patric Hornqvist admitted that game was on their mind a little bit heading into Friday.

“For sure.” Hornqvist said. “That does not feel good to lose 7-1 to one of your big rivals, and they have been playing really well. It was a big test for us but I think we came out really strong tonight, stuck with it the whole game and got the two points.”

They still have two more meetings during the regular season (including one in two weeks) and remain on track to meet in the first round of the playoffs. After Friday’s game they remain solidly positioned in the second and third spots in the Metropolitan Division.

When asked after the game if he wants to play the Blue Jackets in the playoffs, Hornqvist simply responded by saying, “Oh, we probably will.”

Indeed. With both teams at least four points ahead of the Rangers for the fourth spot in the division (with each having a game in hand), and both being a few points back of the Washington Capitals for the top spot this seems to be a matchup that is destined to happen.

Given the way recent games have unfolded, it would be one heck of a series.

Even though Friday’s game only featured one power play between the two teams (Columbus’ Cam Atkinson was called for hooking in overtime to set up Kessel’s second goal of the game) it at times resembled a law-less society on the ice where pretty much anything went.

Extra shots away from the puck. Chris Kunitz and Boone Jenner trying to fight at center ice after a whistle. Whatever-it-takes defense. Yet another altercation between Dubinsky and Crosby.

Ever since Dubinsky joined the Blue Jackets a few years ago that has been the preferred matchup for them in games against the Penguins, and it almost always seems to result in things reaching a boiling point, whether it was that fight fight a year ago, Dubinsky getting suspended for repeatedly cross-checking Crosby in the neck in front of the net, or just random physical play.

It happened again on Friday when in the second period the two forwards became tied up in the middle of the ice. After Crosby fell to the ice, Dubinsky gave him another shove to the back.

After the game Dubinsky was asked if he felt Crosby was trying to buy a call on the play, to which he replied, “I’m sure everybody else can make their own decision on that one.”

Dubinsky ended up playing a significant role in the game beyond that by scoring a goal and adding an assist, while also being guilty of a turnover at the blue line in overtime (at the hands of Crosby) that resulted in Atkinson’s hooking penalty to set up the winning Pittsburgh goal. If these two teams do end up meeting in the playoffs, it will be one of the individual matchups that gets the most attention.

“Crosby is one of the best players in the game, and I think Dubi, people that have been around Dubi know how he is. He is so competitive and so wants the challenge, he just thrives in that,” Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella said after the game.

“He makes mistakes, but I live with more of his mistakes because they are always effort mistakes. It is never a lazy play. It is never an in-between play. I thought him and his line were outstanding.”

Along with the obvious dislike between the two teams the other factor that would make a first-round matchup so appealing is the simple fact these are, quite literally, two of the four best teams in hockey right now and are separated by just two points in the standings.

Because of the NHL’s divisional playoff format, and because nobody in the Metropolitan Division ever seems to lose this season with three of the top-four teams in the division all residing in the division, we could be guaranteed to see one of the top teams in the NHL be finished after the first round.

Video: Oilers showed off depth beyond McDavid in beating Sharks

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As the Art Ross winner and Hart Trophy frontrunner, there’s no doubt that Connor McDavid is the catalyst for the Edmonton Oilers.

Still, the scary thing for opponents is that, while he created chances against the San Jose Sharks, McDavid wasn’t exactly lighting them up for points.

Nope, as Mike Rupp and Jeremy Roenick discuss in the video above, the Oilers advanced thanks as much to depth scorers – and deft goaltending from Cam Talbot – as they did because of McDavid’s blistering combination of skill and speed.

Now, the Anaheim Ducks rank as an interesting opponent. While the Sharks could slow McDavid with one of the few blueliners who could really give him trouble – relatively speaking – in Marc-Edouard Vlasic, it remains to be seen if Anaheim can accomplish the same.

(A fully healthy Hampus Lindholm would increase their odds, mind you.)

Either way, the Oilers’ “other guys” deserve some credit, and they get it in the video above.

The West’s next round is now set (and wide-open)

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Saturday was a great day for fans of brevity and revenge.

Three of a possible three series ended on this day, with the Rangers dispatching the Canadiens, the Blues eliminating the “better” Wild, and the Oilers knocking off the Sharks in six.

The Rangers await either the Bruins or Senators and the Penguins face the winner of the Leafs – Capitals series out East, but we now know how the West shakes out.

St. Louis Blues vs. Nashville Predators

Both teams provided some of the upsets of this young postseason. Each features a red-hot goalie in Jake Allen and Pekka Rinne. Interesting.

Anaheim Ducks vs. Edmonton Oilers

There will be a lot of orange. We may also see a ton of goals with Ryan Getzlaf on fire, Oscar Klefbom headlining the list of unhealthy players and Connor McDavid possibly able to really take off against a Ducks defense that is beat up in its own right.

It’s already been a strange season out West, with the Kings missing the playoffs and first-round exits for the Sharks and Blackhawks. Get ready – and giddy – for things to get even weirder as the postseason goes along.

Oilers win first series since 2006 after Sharks fall crossbar short of overtime

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After making the playoffs for the first time since 2006, the Edmonton Oilers weren’t just “happy to be there.” They confirmed as much by eliminating the San Jose Sharks with a 3-1 victory in Game 6, winning the series 4-2.

Yes, those young Oilers just eliminated the team that represented the West in the 2016 Stanley Cup Final. Wow.

Ultimately, winning the breakaway battle in the second period indeed made the difference. Leon Draisaitl and Anton Slepyshev scored on their chances in the middle frame while Patrick Marleau could not; Slepyshev’s 2-0 goal ultimately became the series-clincher.

Now, that’s not to say that Marleau was a drag on San Jose. If this is it for one of the faces of the franchise, he had a great 2016-17, including generating the Sharks’ final goal of the postseason.

The Shark Tank was alive after Marleau reduced the Oilers’ lead to 2-1, and more than a few blood pressures rose – both in Edmonton and San Jose – after the Sharks got this close to tying things up.

Wow.

With this result, the West is set. The St. Louis Blues will take on the Nashville Predators while the Oilers face the Anaheim Ducks.

As much as people try to put the training wheels on Connor McDavid & Co., the West is wide-open enough that it’s not so outrageous to imagine a big run for Edmonton.

Beating the Sharks is a pretty nice way of adding an exclamation point to that statement win. And hey … they beat the Sharks last time around, too.

Canadiens sound a lot like Wild after playoff exit (without ‘better team’ talk)

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Much like the Minnesota Wild earlier on Saturday, the Montreal Canadiens are stunned to approach the golf courses so rapidly.

Many of the responses after the New York Rangers eliminated them in Game 6 sound a lot like what the Wild uttered, though there’s no potential bulletin board material like Bruce Boudreau’s line about the better team failing to win four games.

Max Pacioretty viewed this early exit as a “missed opportunity” and never really believed that an elimination was coming.

Claude Julien provided parallel comments to Bruce Boudreau, believing that Montreal generated chances but lacked “finish.”

Brendan Gallagher? He worries that this might have been the Canadiens’ best chance, something the Wild must also worry about with a difficult offseason ahead.

Now, it’s likely that most teams speak about being shocked and expecting better after being booted from the postseason.

Still, these reactions do shine a light on the staggering nature of some of these exits. Will the likes of the Blackhawks, Canadiens and Wild struggle to be in such prime positions in the future? With the Sharks needing a comeback against the Oilers, could the trend continue on Saturday?

The bottom line is that, instead of preparing for a Game 7 after winning the Atlantic Division, the Canadiens are packing up their stuff and worrying about re-signing Carey Price. That’s a pretty stunning turnaround, regardless of the soundbytes available.