Carolina, Columbus wins highlight Stadium Series’ importance for Pens

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NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Saturday’s Stadium Series matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers from Lincoln Financial Field. Coverage begins at 8 p.m. ET on NBC. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Saturday night won’t feel like any other night for the Penguins and Flyers. It’s just human nature.

How can you not be distracted by the pageantry of an outdoor game and all of the hoopla that comes with it? From dealing with those unique environs to wondering if such an environment will even allow for competitive hockey (thanks a lot, rain), there’s just a lot going on.

That’s something to consider for any such contest, yet when it happens this late into February, the teams involved really need to find a way to focus. With the Flyers virtually out of the race, the onus is then on the Penguins to make sure they win Saturday’s game. After all, if the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs began at this very moment, the Penguins would be out of the mix.

[Penguins say the right things]

As you can see in the post linked above, the Penguins were already emphasizing that they’re focused on getting this win coming into the weekend, but recent events really cement that this isn’t just a fun event for the Pens.

Blue Jackets move up, and make a big move

Earlier this week, the Penguins moved ahead of the Blue Jackets, but that margin was smaller than it seemed because Columbus had two games in hand.

The Blue Jackets won both of those games, impressively beating the Senators on Friday and Sharks on Saturday by a combined score of 7-0. This leaves the Penguins two full points behind Columbus heading into the 2019 Stadium Series that’s moments away.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 8 P.M. ET – NBC]

Blue Jackets (third place in Metro): 35-23-3, 73 points, 35 regulation/overtime wins, 61 games played
Penguins (ninth place in East): 32-22-7, 71 points, 31 ROW, 61 GP

The good news for the Penguins is that they have quite a bit of control of their own fate against Columbus. They play against the Blue Jackets three more times this season, with those head-to-head matches all coming by March 9.

The bad news is that they’ll be facing a more loaded version of this Blue Jackets team, if Columbus decides to keep Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky for the rest of the season, as trading for Matt Duchene makes a good team far scarier to face.

So … finishing ahead of the Blue Jackets won’t be easy.

[After this post originally went up, Columbus added Ryan Dzingel, too.]

Hurricanes storm past Pittsburgh, too

The Hurricanes also shut out their opponents on Saturday, as Carolina beat the Dallas Stars 3-0. That win gives the Hurricanes a small lead for the East’s second wild-card spot, at least for now:

Hurricanes (second WC): 33-23-6, 72 points, 32 ROW, 62 GP
Penguins (ninth place): 32-22-7, 71 points, 31 ROW, 61 GP

While Columbus has a decent (though far from insurmountable) edge on Pittsburgh, the gap between the Hurricanes and Penguins is tiny. Carolina and Pittsburgh also face each other two more times in 2018-19, so for all we know, the East’s bubble races could come down to those games.

(The Blue Jackets and Hurricanes meet one more time in the regular season: a March 15 contest in Carolina.)

***

The last 24 hours or so haven’t been kind to the Penguins’ playoff hopes, yet the fierce challenges from Columbus and Carolina should at least keep Pittsburgh alert. Of course, if any team would love to spoil things for the Penguins, wouldn’t it be the Flyers?

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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