As much as the Blue Jackets look bold in adding Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel during the trade deadline and not moving Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, one thing doesn’t look different. They’re still seemingly going to need to finally solve the riddle of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Now, it’s true that both the Penguins and Blue Jackets could both make the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
It’s almost certain that three playoff spots will boil down to four teams: Columbus and Pittsburgh, plus the Carolina Hurricanes and Montreal Canadiens. With things as tight as they are right now, there will probably be some serious twists and turns until the 2018-19 regular season ends on April 7.
It’s chilling to the Blue Jackets to realize that, if the playoffs began on Tuesday night, they’d be on the outside looking in. Painful stuff to absorb shortly after betting big on a deep playoff run.
With that in mind, the Blue Jackets have to hope that Tuesday represents the dark Second Act before the heroes prevail in the end, partying with Wookies.
So let’s break down Tuesday, when “The Penguins Strike Back.”
Penguins 5, Blue Jackets 2
Columbus loaded up, while the Penguins have also mortgaged a portion of their future by recently giving up picks for Nick Bjugstad/Jared McCann, and making questionable moves including adding derisive defenseman Erik Gudbranson.
Tuesday represented the first of three remaining games against the Penguins, with the head-to-head games closing off with a home-and-home series on March 7 and 9.
The Penguins stunned what must have been an-at-first elated Blue Jackets crowd with a 3-0 first period. Pittsburgh must have been fearing that they’d squander another lead like they did against the Flyers at the 2019 Stadium Series when Columbus wound that edge down to 3-2, but the Pens ultimately won. Evgeni Malkin‘s game-winner was surely one Bobrovsky would like back:
So far, the Blue Jackets have lost both of their games against the Penguins this season, which must really bug John Tortorella — who hasn’t been shy about sharing his hatred for the Pens.
The Blue Jackets found no solace looking at the scoreboard, either.
Hurricanes 6, Kings 1
The main drama here revolved around whether the Hurricanes would come up with another riff on “bunch of jerks.” Carolina won easily, and yes, they did present something new to troll those who grumble at those win celebrations.
Canadiens 8(!), Red Wings 1
Although Monday’s regulation loss to the lowly Devils must have been frustrating, you’d almost expect a less relentless rendition of the Canadiens to close out back-to-back games.
If Montreal was fatigued, they had a funny way of showing it, as they absolutely demolished Detroit. Any worries about back-to-back losses to cellar dwellers went away during Montreal’s five-goal second period.
There was quite a bit of movement in the skintight standings:
Metro 3: Hurricanes: 34-23-6, 74 points, 33 regulation/OT wins, 63 games played
WC 1: Canadiens: 34-23-7, 75 points, 32 ROW, 64 GP
WC 2: Penguins: 33-22-8, 74 points, 32 ROW, 63 GP
Ninth place: Blue Jackets: 35-24-3, 73 points, 35 ROW, 62 GP
While Tuesday represents the worst-case scenario for Columbus, the Blue Jackets’ current position is misleading, as they can win that game in hand and then move back in front of everyone.
There are possible situations where this wouldn’t happen, but it wouldn’t be surprising if the Blue Jackets’ (or Hurricanes’) fate comes down to if they can beat (or at least wrestle some standings points away from) the Penguins, as Carolina and Columbus each have two games remaining against Pittsburgh.
(In case you’re wondering … Columbus faces Montreal and Carolina once more, while the Habs and Hurricanes face each other one more time.)
Anyone who genuinely believes they know which of these four teams will secure the three East spots is probably bluffing. If Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen is wrong about his confidence in his own team standing tall, then that gamble would end up become an enormous bust.
Tuesday made that reality feel more possible, but expect things to change, possibly almost every night.
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.