The Blue Jackets’ penultimate game of the 2018 regular season offers an opportunity to send an ultimatum to their perceived arch-nemesis, the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Whatever happens in the 7 p.m. Thursday face-off at Nationwide Arena will bear three words of consequence.
Things have changed.
Try, try again.
Blue Jackets fans consider the Pens their team’s rival, but for that to be true, the CBJ must, at some point, show themselves to be something more than just an irritant to the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions.
Shoving the Pens down a notch in the standings with a victory on Thursday in a game of great import to both franchises would help.
Eliminating the Penguins in a playoff series would close the deal.
The Blue Jackets cannot guarantee the latter tomorrow night.
But they certainly can deliver the former in a game that will leave the winner on the inside lane to a second-place finish in the Metro, and the loser facing the unenviable prospect of a possible slide all the way into the second Wildcard slot.
Both teams enter with 96 points, one in front of New Jersey with 95 and two up on Philadelphia with 93.
None of those teams play Wednesday night, so nothing will change until everything changes once the puck drops and events unfold in the Arena District.
The Blue Jackets want to believe they’ve closed the gap on Pittsburgh. After all, while the Pens have won two of three between the teams this season, the first two went to a Shootout.
It’s hard to believe that stresses the Penguins much.
After all, when push came to shove, and skill confronted swagger, it was Pittsburgh that scored two third-period goals in the first meeting, and three third-period goals in the second meeting, to get to the skills competition that decided it.
The implied message there is: When we have to score, you can’t stop us.
And then in Game 3 at Nationwide in February, Pittsburgh seemingly decided to end the suspense early by scoring three times in the first.
Such on-demand excellence calls to mind -- painfully for Jackets fans -- the first-round playoff series last season.
You remember those 50-win Blue Jackets, right?
The ones who were supposedly skilled enough, with enough offensive depth, to hang with Pittsburgh’s star power?.
The ensuing 4-1 Penguins series triumph showed otherwise, prompting the Blue Jackets to deal for more game-breaking ability in the off-season.
That’s paid off, with Artemi Panarin giving the CBJ what Brandon Saad never did, but still the question lingers, “Is Panerin enough to offset Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin?”
Oh, there are many other questions, too.
“Is Sergei Bobrovsky capable of being a playoff stud?”
“Can Pierre Luc Dubois hold his own against the Pens at age 19 as the CBJ’s top-line center?”
“Will Ian Cole make the Penguins pay for trading him at the deadline?”
None of those things will be settled, but all will come more sharply into focus, at the conclusion of Thursday’s proceedings.
So there is much to be determined, both mathematically in the standings, and psychologically beneath the helmets.
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