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.
This game is the start of a home-and-home that will wrap up the season series between Columbus and Pittsburgh. The Penguins have won both meetings so far, including their game last week in Columbus. Overall, the Pens have won seven in a row in the regular season vs. the Blue Jackets.
This home-and-home series figures to have massive implications on the playoff race. Entering this game, just two points separate third in the Metro from being outside of the playoffs entirely.
Columbus picked up a much-needed two points on Tuesday with their 2-1 shootout win over New Jersey. The Jackets had been 1-3-0 since the trade deadline, so the win was a tangible measure of progress to keep them right in the playoff mix. However, the reaction in the locker room afterwards was hardly celebratory. The Jackets played very poorly, mustering only 18 shots on goal (a season-low) against a Devils team that had nearly half of its regular lineup out due to injury.
Pittsburgh also went past regulation on Tuesday, defeating Florida 3-2 in OT, thanks to Jake Guentzel’s second goal of the game. He now has 33 goals this season. Sidney Crosby had three points to surpass the 1,200-point threshold.
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.
Capitals strike early, hold on to even series in chaotic game
After allowing three different two-goal leads to disappear on home ice this postseason, the Washington Capitals were able to hold on to one on Sunday afternoon, picking up a 4-1 win to tie their second-round series with the Pittsburgh Penguins at one game apiece.
It was another fast start for the Capitals as they were able to jump all over a sloppy Penguins team in the first period.
Alex Ovechkin started the scoring just 1:26 into the game when he pounced on a Patric Hornqvist turnover at the blue line and wired a shot into the top corner behind Matt Murray to give the Capitals an early lead. Later in the period Jakub Vrana scored on the power play to give the Capitals what has become — for them — a dreaded two-goal lead. But unlike in Games 1 and 2 of the first-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets, and also in Game 1 of this series against Pittsburgh, the Capitals were able to build on that lead and hold on for the win.
They were able to add to it when Brett Connolly scored on a breakaway early in the second period, again capitalizing on another sloppy Penguins turnover, this time by Dominik Simon.
With all of that important details taken care of, it was a pretty chaotic path to get us to the end result.
Vrana’s goal in the first period had to withstand a goaltender interference review after the Penguins challenged it due to Brett Connolly taking a whack at Murray’s pad.
Connolly clearly knocked Murray off balance, but in the eyes of the league he had enough time to reset himself and get back into position to continue to play his position.
The call on the ice was upheld and the Capitals had their two-goal lead.
The Penguins were not happy with it, but that seems to be fairly consistent with how these reviews have been handled. Murray had time to recover after the contact from Connolly while that contact did not really alter his ability to stop the puck. There is a lot of griping about how interference reviews have been handled this season — and in many cases the griping is justified — but not all of them are completely arbitrary and inconsistent. If the goalie has time to get back into position, they usually let it go.
That would not be the only review in the game.
Midway through the third period, with the Penguins now trailing 3-1, they thought they had scored to pull within one on a Patric Hornqvist rebound attempt on the doorstep. It was unclear whether or not Capitals goalie Braden Holtby was able to keep the puck out of the net or if it had entirely crossed the goal line.
The call on the ice was no-goal and after a lengthy review it was determined that there was no conclusive evidence to overturn the call.
Holtby’s leg blocked the overhead and in-net cameras from determining whether or not the puck was entirely across the line.
This was the only angle that clearly showed the puck.
The team you want to win — or the team you are playing for — will determine what you want to see here.
This was a play that no matter what the call on the ice was they were going to stick with it given the replay angles they had to work with.
Wilson was involved in another controversial play when he knocked Penguins defenseman Brian Dumoulin out of the game with a hit to the head.
There was no penalty called on the play but it will almost certainly be reviewed by the NHL’s Department of Player Safety. Wilson avoided a suspension in the first-round when he knocked Columbus’ Alex Wennberg out of the series for a few games with a high hit.
Losing Dumoulin was a big blow to the Penguins because it not only forced them to play with only five defensemen for the rest of the game — not a great spot for a team that is already lacking blue line depth to be in — but because Dumoulin has been great for them this postseason. If he can not go in Game 3 they would have to turn to Matt Hunwick.
The Penguins are already dealing with some significant injury issues as forwards Evgeni Malkin and Carl Hagelin have yet to play in this series due to injuries they sustained in their first-round series win against the Philadelphia Flyers. Malkin’s absence has been glaring on the power play, while he and Hagelin make up two-thirds of what has been the team’s second line this postseason. That is a major dent in their forward depth. That said, they have still won two of the three games they have played this postseason without Malkin, managed to split in Washington without him and Hagelin, and head home on Tuesday night for Game 3 tied in the series.
There also needs to be some attention given to the game Holtby played in net for the Capitals on Sunday because he was outstanding, stopping 32 of the 33 shots he faced.
The only goal he allowed, a long distance shot from Penguins defenseman Kris Letang, was one that beat him through traffic that he probably did not get a clear view of. He made a couple of highlight reel saves — including two on Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel that really stood out — to help slow down the Penguins’ offense.
The Metropolitan Division hasn’t just produced the last two Stanley Cup winners (Pittsburgh Penguins) and last two Presidents’ Trophy winners (Washington Capitals).
It’s also a division that runs deep. The Columbus Blue Jackets took the league by storm in 2016-17, and while Sergei Bobrovsky might not be sensational again, many still believe they’re legit. The New York Rangers and New York Islanders still boast significant strengths, while the Carolina Hurricanes are dark horse candidates once more.
Even the New Jersey Devils keep adding promising talent.
Let’s preview what might once again be the best division in the NHL.
So, to reiterate, it could be quite a while before the Avalanche trade Duchene. It’s really difficult to tell, especially since moves can come together quickly after laying dormant for what seems like ages.
So, again, this isn’t to say a trade is coming. With training camp nearing, it’s fun to break down the facets of a possible move, anyway.
Let’s explore the logic of a possible move, though.
A game-breaker for Columbus?
The Hurricanes and Blue Jackets have at least two things in common that could make a Duchene trade more feasible and palatable: each franchise boasts a nice prospect stockpile and lack a true top center.
Now, you can argue that Duchene isn’t an “elite” No. 1 pivot, but he could really flesh out Columbus’ group (and take some pressure off, say, Alex Wennberg).
It’s easy to fixate on Duchene’s rough 2016-17 season, but at age 26, it’s fair to argue that last season was an anomaly. The Avalanche were a borderline historic disaster, and even if Duchene could have played better, it’s absurd to pin too much on the speedy scorer.
Look at his previous four sesaons and you’ll see evidence of a gamebreaker, especially in the low-scoring, modern NHL.
Duchene generated at least 20 goals in three straight seasons from 2013-14 to 2015-16, and he almost hit 20 (scoring 17) during the 48-game lockout season of 2012-13.
The Blue Jackets, to some extent, score by committee. Adding a little more dynamic skill could really help Columbus find that “extra gear.”
Portzline indicates that a package involving Murray and Jenner could move the needle more, so let’s ponder Murray for a moment.
Considering that the Avalanche are shooting high for a Duchene return, they’d have to figure that Murray, 23, needs a fresh start. Management might even see the potential for a high-draft-pick turnaround that parallels how Erik Johnson‘s enjoyed a nice run with the Avs.
Yep, that would require a leap of faith … or the Avalanche would really need to be smitten by Boone Jenner.
Jenner is an interesting test case in perception.
Yes, he scored 30 goals in 2015-16, but nine of them came on the power play. Jenner was limited to 18 goals in 2016-17, with none coming on Columbus’ locomotive man-advantage. Realistic expectations probably place him at 20 goals with modest playmaking.
Jenner brings nice size and is only 24, so there are selling points.
Jenner ($2.9M, RFA after 2017-18) and Murray ($2.825M, RFA after 2017-18) and Duchene ($6M, UFA after 2018-19) all have their strengths and weaknesses. They’re all at or approaching a fork in the road in their careers with little time on their current contracts.
A Jenner + Murray combo could make some sense for the Avalanche, especially with both being at prime ages. You’d think that the Blue Jackets might need to sweeten the deal with a prospect, at least considering how big Sakic is seemingly dreaming.
Personally, from a Blue Jackets perspective, this seems like a great deal.
It would set the stage for a potentially fascinating summer of 2019, as Duchene, Artemi Panarin, and Sergei Bobrovsky would all be eligible for unrestricted free agency. On the other hand, that would allow Columbus to assess where the franchise is at over a season or two, and pivot if they feel that this group just can’t get it done.
One understands the lure of hoarding prospects, especially with how fans can sometimes get attached to the daydream of production that may never come. Sometimes you have to swing for the fences, though, and the Blue Jackets might want to do that with Duchene.
You know, if they can actually convince Sakic to accept a reasonable deal.
Blue Jackets face big cap decisions after Wennberg signing
(Read more about his six-year deal with a $4.9 million cap hit here.)
Locking up the intriguing 22-year-old talent settles a big question for the Blue Jackets, but after looking at their salary structure, some agonizing decisions remain. Let’s look at some of those situations and their cap future overall, with help from Cap Friendly’s always-helpful listings.
Wennberg is signed through 2022-23, making his deal the longest-standing contract on the Blue Jackets’ roster right now. There are other significant deals, though.
The best one, for my money, is Seth Jones: his $5.4M cap hit runs through 2021-22. The 22-year-old is already starting to put together the numbers (career-high 12 goals and 42 points last season) that make him more than what he already was: a developing star. Even if he bounces somewhere between “very good” and “legit star,” just about any team would fork over $5.4M per year for Jones.
David Savard isn’t too shabby at $4.25M through 2019-20, standing as the only other blueliner with a lengthy deal for CBJ.
Wennberg’s deal stands along with two other forwards as far as lengthier contracts go. Nick Foligno ($5.5M through 2020-21) really improved his standing in the league last season, while Brandon Dubinsky ($5.85M through 2020-21) poses some concerns considering his rougher style and the fact that he’s already 31.
(Then again, you can have worse things on your resume than “Premium Sidney Crosby Disturber.”)
Several Blue Jackets face especially fascinating fork-in-the-road seasons.
Cam Atkinson exploded with an All-Star output last season, finishing with career-highs in goals (35), assists (27), and points (62). Ten of his goals and 21 of those points came on that power play, and being that he’s already 28, Columbus might be right to see if he slips a bit before making a big investment.
That said, Atkinson probably ranks as an underrated player, or at least he once did. This marks four straight seasons with at least 21 goals and 40 points.
The question isn’t about Atkinson getting a raise, but instead the keys are “How much of a raise?” and “For how long?” Atkinson carries a $2.9M AAV and would be an unrestricted free agent.
Both defensemen are intriguing. Murray, 23, has experienced a frustratingly stilted development thanks to injuries. Johnson, 30, draws plenty of criticism for his defensive play, and one would guess that Columbus would prefer to get a discount on another deal if they bring him back.
As significant as those expiring deals are, the two-year contracts stand as the biggest choices.
A year after injuries and inconsistency made Sergei Bobrovsky‘s $7.425M cap hit look questionable, a brilliant Vezina year (albeit somewhat tainted by playoff struggles) make that price look like a borderline bargain. Still, “Bob” is 28, so he’ll be 30 at the end of his current contract. If he wants a significant raise on a fairly significant clip, will Columbus be on board?
There’s some room for intrigue, as Joonas Korisalo’s $900K deal goes away after two years, as well.
“Cost certainty” was a theme of the Blackhawks’ explanations for their sometimes-shocking summer swaps, and that thought stands out in what Columbus got back in trading Brandon Saad, whose $6M cap hit expires in 2020-21. Artemi Panarin, meanwhile, is only covered through 2018-19 at the same $6M clip.
If Panarin proves that he can generate a ton of offense without Patrick Kane, his price tag could be significant; he’d only be 27 and is slated for UFA status. *Gulp*
The good news is that Zach Werenski (or Zachary?) stands as a tremendous rookie-deal-steal at $925K for two more seasons. The bad part is that Werenski would be in line for a big raise in 2019-20 and beyond.
With Bobrovsky, Panarin, and Werenski all having two years remaining on their contracts, it’s clear that Columbus has some decisions to make, whether they hand out extensions in the summer of 2018 or wait until deals expire.
Considering how dour things seemed for Columbus just a summer ago, the outlook is a lot sunnier today.
Even so, GM Jarmo Kekalainen faces some crucial choices in the next year or two. Which ways would you lean?
* – Some Blue Jackets execs might root for a Bjorkstrand breakout in 2018-19.