The Columbus Blue Jackets and Pittsburgh Penguins went toe-to-toe at Nationwide Arena on Thursday night in a potential playoff preview. With both teams coming into the matchup with identical records, the outcome of the game would go a long way in determining the postseason seeding of both clubs.
In what was the most important game of the season, Thursday’s contest was about as evenly played of a game as there could possibly be. The Jackets got on board first in what turned out to be a high scoring first period when Zach Werenski sent what looked to be a harmless backhander on net that got past Matt Murray to put the CBJ up 1-0 just 5:11 into the game.
With 9:34 remaining in the first, the Penguins answered on the power play when Phil Kessel ripped a wrist shot past Sergei Bobrovsky to tie the game up at one.
Just over two minutes later, the Jackets jumped out front again.
Matt Calvert received a pass from Jack Johnson in the neutral zone, skated in along the boards, deked past a defender to the center of the ice, and sent a backhander past Murray in what was a highlight-reel goal to regain the lead for the CBJ with 7:21 left in the first period.
The Pens tied up the game once again a few minutes later when Patric Hornqvist batted a puck off a CBJ defenseman out of the air and into the net to make it 2-2 with 4:25 remaining in the first period.
After four goals in the first 20 minutes, scoring calmed down a bit in the second period.
At the 6:35 mark of the second, Thomas Vanek sent a blind pass to Boone Jenner on the power play in front of the net who buried it to give the Jackets a 3-2 lead.
The CBJ lead wouldn’t last long into the third period.
Just 2:58 into the final 20, Kris Letang scored a power play goal from atop the faceoff circle to tie the game up yet again.
A couple minutes prior to the half-way point of the third period, the Jackets pulled ahead for the fourth time on Thursday night. Pierre-Luc Dubois entered the offensive zone with Cam Atkinson and got a shot off on Murray, who made the initial save. Atkinson was able to get to the rebound and send it home to make it 4-3 CBJ with 11:35 remaining in regulation.
Based on how the game had gone up to that point, the next score was predictable.
With 7:44 left in regulation, Conor Sheary skated in on Bobrovsky with speed, saw his initial shot get stopped by the CBJ goaltender, then tipped the puck in off Bobrovsky’s glove from his knees to tie the game at four goals apiece.
Although the Penguins seemingly controlled play for most of the rest of the game, Bob and the CBJ defense held the Pens out of the net, sending the game to overtime.
Just 66 seconds into OT, Phil Kessel went coast-to-coast and beat Bobrovsky with a wrist shot to seal a 5-4 Pittsburgh victory. It was the first and only lead of the night for the Penguins.
With the point gathered in the overtime loss, the Blue Jackets clinched a playoff spot for the second consecutive year, a franchise first. Now looking up at the Penguins in the standings, they’ll need some help if they want to get home ice with only one game remaining.
Despite the loss, John Tortorella was happy after the game about the opportunity ahead for his team. With a playoff spot secured, Tortorella was a little retrospective when he met with the media, saying:
It sucks losing the game, it’s kind of weird, but I’m thrilled for the team. I am absolutely thrilled. The amount of work they put in where we were almost dead and gone there a couple months ago. I’m thrilled that they get to experience what we’re going to experience here.
It’s a little bittersweet because it’s Pittsburgh, you don’t want to lose to them. But in the big picture, for our team, for our guys, I am really happy for them. One of the youngest teams in the league, they get to experience things that starts forming their legacy as players. Not this shit in the regular season, it’s the playoffs.
With their first round playoff opponent still to be determined, the CBJ have one regular season game remaining on Saturday in Nashville. The Predators have the best record in the National Hockey League, so it’ll be a tough test for the Jackets in their final tune up before the postseason.