PITTSBURGH — John Tortorella raised quite a few eyebrows on Thursday when he not only decided to start backup goalie Joonas Korpisalo for what was, to this point, his team’s biggest game of the regular season, but also decided to not even dress his regular starter, Sergei Bobrovsky.
The official explanation was for Bobrovsky to get some additional rest and work on his game, and not because of his career-long struggles against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Given the importance of the game, the dire situation Columbus is in when it comes to the Eastern Conference playoff race, and the fact Bobrovsky is supposed to be their starting goalie that explanation doesn’t really fly.
This is not the time to “rest” your starter. This is the time you lean on him. So in that sense, it was a pretty bold decision. Actually, it probably isn’t even fair to call it bold because it is too much of an understatement.
Having said all of that, Tortorella’s decision wasn’t really the difference in the end because it doesn’t matter who your goalie is if you can’t score any goals. And that is exactly what happened to the Blue Jackets on Thursday night. They did nothing.
The Blue Jackets dropped their eighth consecutive game to the Penguins, fell four points behind them in the standings, and continued their post-trade deadline struggles in what could be a massive 3-0 loss. The two teams meet again on Saturday night in Columbus in what figures to be a must-win game for the Blue Jackets if they have any hope of catching the Penguins in the standings. A regulation win would at least bring them back to within two points; but a regulation loss would push them six points back with less than a month to play in the regular season. That gap would almost impossible to make up, especially no more remaining head-to-head meetings after Saturday.
There are a couple of issues here for the Blue Jackets.
First, what does it say about your confidence in your starting goalie if you can’t start him in this game against this team?
Second, and perhaps more importantly, after going all in at the trade deadline and trading away almost every draft pick they have in 2019 (as well as a couple of prospects) to get Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, Adam McQuaid, and Keith Kinkaid, the Blue Jackets are now in a situation where they are not even close to a guarantee to make the playoffs.
They are just 2-4-0 since the trade deadline, with none of those wins coming in regulation. They needed overtime to beat a Philadelphia Flyers team that is not going to make the playoffs and barely outlasted a depleted New Jersey roster that is among the worst in the league in a shootout on Tuesday night. They have scored just nine goals in the six games, have been shutout twice (once to Edmonton) and been beaten twice by the Penguins in two huge head-to-head games.
That is obviously not what they had in mind when they went all in at the trade deadline to try and take advantage of the remaining months they have with Artemi Panarin and Bobrovsky before they inevitably leave in free agency.
For as bad as the situation looks right now the Blue Jackets are definitely not out of this thing yet. Even though Saturday’s game against the Penguins is huge when it comes to their chances of catching them, the Penguins are not the only team the Blue Jackets are competing with in this race. Even with all of their recent struggles they are still only two points back of the Montreal Canadiens and Carolina Hurricanes, so they are well within reach. They are not going to get there though if they can not start to find some consistent and sustained offense.
As for the Penguins on Thursday, Phil Kessel started the scoring with an early power play goal to snap what had been a 16-game goal-less drought, while Nick Bjugstad and Sidney Crosby also scored in the win.
Matt Murray stopped all 25 shots he faced to record his fourth shutout of the season.