Blue Jackets sit Bob vs. Penguins: About rest or big-game woes?

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Thursday night’s matchup between the Columbus Blue Jackets and Pittsburgh Penguins. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Virtually every game is a big game for the Columbus Blue Jackets going forward, but even by those standards, this upcoming home-and-home set with the Pittsburgh Penguins is ginormous. Like, bigger than the biggest John Tortorella meltdown.

Frankly, the Blue Jackets haven’t had the greatest luck in big games against the Penguins, and key head-to-head games against their bubble peers this season — and maybe Torts is just a bit too aware of it.

There’s a fascinating tug-of-war going on on Thursday, after word surfaced that (gulp) Sergei Bobrovsky isn’t just being passed over as the starter against the Penguins; he isn’t even dressing. Instead, Joonas Korpisalo gets the nod, while Keith Kinkaid serves as backup.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

From a front-facing perspective, Torts’ explanation is sensible enough.

“We feel he’s played a lot of hockey,” Tortorella said, via Jeff Svoboda of the team website. “This was a game we wanted to give to Korpi and try to get Bob a little bit of rest and kind of work on his game.”

Understandably, some wonder if Tortorella is merely serving up platitudes, but there are at least kernels of truth. Svoboda points out that Bobrovsky’s started eight consecutive games for the Blue Jackets, and 14 of their last 15 games.

It still makes you wonder if the Blue Jackets are overthinking (and/or underthinking?) things a little here.

For one thing, if the team was preoccupied with getting Bob some rest, the timing is a little odd. Wouldn’t it have been wiser to rest Bobrovsky on Tuesday (a 2-1 shootout win against the Devils) than during these big games against the Penguins? The two-time Vezina winner struggled right after the trade deadline, yet he was strong against New Jersey.

But maybe Torts is really just scared of history repeating itself?

Look, there’s no denying that Bobrovsky’s suffered some of his worst moments in big games against the Penguins, surely only intensifying Torts’ clear hatred for the Penguins. In both 2013-14 and 2016-17, Bobrovsky followed magnificent regular season runs with first-round faceplants against the Penguins. The narratives about Bobrovsky “choking” in clutch moments started to take root there.

No doubt, Tortorella is aware of such thoughts.

But, again, the rest argument is reasonable, to an extent. This could work out quite well, actually, if Korpisalo wins on Thursday, relieving some of that anxiety and maybe lifting a bit of the Penguins baggage. From there, Torts could decide if Korpi might be the “hot hand” or if Bob got enough rest — and it’s also worth noting that Kinkaid’s had some small-sample success against the Penguins.

And, again, the Blue Jackets have really whiffed in big-game situations, so there’s an argument that they simply need to try different approaches. Consider this rundown of how Columbus has fared in head-to-head games against the three teams they’re jockeying with: the Hurricanes, Canadiens, and Penguins.

Against Carolina

Oct. 5: 3-1 loss to Hurricanes.
Nov. 17: 4-1 win vs. Hurricanes.
Jan. 4: 4-2 loss to Hurricanes.
March 15: Final game against Hurricanes, in Columbus.

Against Montreal

Jan. 18: 4-1 loss to Habs.
Feb. 19: 3-2 loss to Habs.
March 28: Final game against Habs, in Columbus.

Against Pittsburgh

Nov. 24: 4-2 loss against Penguins.
Feb. 26: 5-2 loss against Penguins.
March 7 and 9: Home-and-home.

[Push for the Playoffs]

That’s just two of a possible 14 standings points in seven games so far against those teams, with four remaining. If the Blue Jackets miss the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs – as they’re currently positioned to do – it would be because of failures against those teams. It would be painfully fitting if those failures specifically boil down to not getting over the hump against the Penguins, a team that’s tormented them for much of the Bobrovsky – Torts era.

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Either way, the Blue Jackets need to figure things out, and cross their fingers that Bobrovsky and their other goalies get on track. After all, it’s not just about slaying that Penguins dragon, even if that’s the biggest and most pressing obstacle ahead; the Blue Jackets note that they’re heading into a stretch where they’ll play seven straight games against teams in playoff position. It’s imperative that the Blue Jackets navigate these choppy waters. Their season depends on it.

When it comes to justifying the team’s bold bets at the trade deadline, the results have been mixed at best so far. It’s time for the Blue Jackets to finally thrive in do-or-die situations, whether Bobrovsky’s in net or not.

John Forslund (play-by-play) and AJ Mleczko (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from Pittsburgh. Pre-game coverage starts at 6 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Paul Burmeister alongside Jeremy Roenick and Mike Johnson.

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.