NHL Hockey

Penguins, Blue Jackets face off in key division battle

The Columbus Blue Jackets have been a sluggish team in recent weeks. Their next opponent should grab their undivided attention.

Looking to win back-to-back games for the first time in nearly a month, the Blue Jackets take on Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins on Friday night in another matchup involving two of the top teams in the Metropolitan Division.

Columbus (36-15-5) and Pittsburgh (36-13-7) have split two games this season, however, the Blue Jackets have outscored the Penguins 10-5.

"It's easy to get up to play those guys. ... It's our biggest rival. It's going to be a big two points, especially how close we are in the standings this year, so it makes it that much more special," Blue Jackets forward Matt Calvert said Thursday.

Pittsburgh begins play in second place in the Metropolitan, five points behind the Washington Capitals and two points ahead of Columbus. The Penguins are 1-2-2 in their last five games at Nationwide Arena, including a 7-1 setback on Dec. 22.

Columbus has split the first four games of its season-high seven-game homestand after defeating the Toronto Maple Leafs 5-2 on Wednesday. That again has the Blue Jackets in position to win two straight for the first time since recording one-goal victories over the Carolina Hurricanes and Ottawa Senators on Jan. 21 and 22, respectively.

Though Columbus has gone just 4-5-1 since then, coach John Tortorella likes the effort his team is putting forth recently.

"I think that's three (games), three of them in a row, where we're certainly not perfect but I think we're attached to the game as far as playing harder. Some guys that I thought were struggling in the effort part I think have picked that up," Tortorella said.

"I think what the guys have done is they've recommitted themselves to just taking it one day at a time, and just keep on working themselves through a very tough part of the year, a grinding part of the year, and just trying to take it one day at a time."

Columbus' rout of Pittsburgh in December was fueled by a hat trick from Scott Hartnell. But Hartnell missed Wednesday's win with a lower-body injury and remains day-to-day according to Tortorella.

Even if Hartnell is unable to go, the Jackets may not miss him. Nine other players have recorded at least two points versus Pittsburgh this season.

After being given a game off, Sergei Bobrovsky should be back in goal for Columbus.

Since last winning consecutive starts on Jan. 8 against the Philadelphia Flyers and Jan. 17 versus Carolina, Bobrovsky is 3-6-1 with a 2.97 goals-against average and a .901 save percentage.

Upon joining the Blue Jackets in 2013, though, Bobrovsky is 4-1-0 with a 2.16 GAA, against Pittsburgh at home, stopping 143 of 154 shots.

Pittsburgh faces a quick turnaround after defeating the Winnipeg Jets 4-3 in overtime on Thursday in a milestone game for Crosby.

The 29-year-old Penguins captain recorded his 1,000th career point with a first-period assist, and then assisted on Phil Kessel's game-tying goal with just over six minutes to play before scoring the game-winning goal -- his NHL-leading 31st -- with 22 seconds to play.

Crosby became the 86th player in NHL history and third this season to reach 1,000 career points along with Alex Ovechkin and Henrik Sedin.

"It's nice to win the game," Crosby told the Penguins' official website. "When you have a memorable night like this, you want to finish the right way."

Ten players -- including Crosby -- have each managed one point versus the Jackets in 2016-17.

Besides dealing with Crosby, Columbus' defense may have its hands full as Evgeni Malkin and Kessel are surging for Pittsburgh.

Malkin had a goal and an assist Thursday, giving him 58 points (24 goals, 34 assists) to match his total from last season. Malkin has recorded multiple points in four of his last five games, totaling three goals and five assists. He also needs one assist for 500 in his career.

Kessel will be trying to score a goal in five straight games for the first time since a career-best six-game run from Nov. 26 to Dec. 8, 2008, while with the Boston Bruins. Kessel is the Penguins' top scorer against the Blue Jackets this season with three points (two goals, assist).

Malkin was held scoreless in December's win over Columbus, and missed a 4-3 overtime victory on Feb. 3 due to a lower-body injury the sidelined him for seven games.

Pittsburgh is just 12-10-4 on the road, but has shown improvement recently by going 4-1-1 in its last six away from home, limiting the opposition to one goal in each of the four victories.

It's not immediately known if the Penguins will have Justin Schultz and Olli Maatta available after both players left in the second period with injuries on Thursday.

Schultz is the Penguins' top-scoring defensemen with a career-best 39 points (nine goals, 30 assists). Maatta has a goal and six assists with a plus-17 rating in 54 games.

The teams will meet for the final time in the regular season on April 4 in Pittsburgh.

Updated February 17, 2017

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