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COLUMBUS Jordan Poyer Jersey , Ohio — The stakes will be high and Nationwide Arena is certain to be rocking when the Pittsburgh Penguins visit Nationwide Arena on Thursday night to face the Columbus Blue Jackets in the next-to-last game of the regular season.
The Metropolitan Division rivals are tied for second place in the standings with 96 points each. The winner will take a big step toward gaining home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
That’s a huge deal, especially for the Penguins (45-29-6) based on their record. They are 29-9-2 at home this season, the second-best mark in the NHL behind the Winnipeg Jets, and 16-20-4 on the road, the second-worst record behind the Colorado Avalanche among the teams still in playoff contention.
“You look at our track record throughout this year and years past, we’ve been good on home ice and that’s where we’re comfortable,” Pittsburgh defenseman Brian Dumoulin said. “Obviously, if we have win on the road we’ve shown we can do that, but home-ice is important. This upcoming game with Columbus is important for that.”
The Penguins already clinched a playoff spot Josh Lambo Jersey , but the Blue Jackets (45-29-6) still are not officially in yet. Beating Pittsburgh for the first time this season (Columbus has lost all three games in the series, including two in shootouts) would remove all doubt.
The New Jersey Devils trail the Blue Jackets and Penguins by one point, the Philadelphia Flyers are two back and the Florida Panthers remain in the hunt, four points behind the Flyers for the second wild-card spot.
If the Penguins and Blue Jackets happen to finish with the same record after 82 games, Pittsburgh would win the tiebreaker.
“I think the biggest thing, you get a win and you’ve got one game left and you get home ice,” Columbus forward Matt Calvert said. “That’s something that we’re really focused on. That’s something we lost last year.”
The Penguins and Blue Jackets met in a first-round series last season that lasted just five games, with Pittsburgh winning three times at home.
Both teams expect a playoff-like environment in Thursday’s showdown.
“It’s an important game to both teams,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “They’re fighting for every bit as much as we’re fighting for. Any time you play divisional rivals it’s a heightened emotion. They tend to be exciting games to be a part of. It’s as close to a playoff atmosphere as you’re going to get because the stakes are so high for both teams.”
The Blue Jackets feel like they’re ready for the Penguins after rallying from a three-goal deficit for a 5-4 overtime victory over the Detroit Red Wings on Tuesday night. Columbus is 13-1-1 in its last 15 games and appears to be peaking at the right time.
Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella just wants his team to have fun and enjoy the moment.
“It’s Pittsburgh. Eventually Andre Reed Jersey , if you have an opportunity to get in (the playoffs), as we’re still trying to fight, you’re going to have to go through there,” he said. “They’re that good. Two-time Stanley Cup winner. They’re a really good team.
“Let’s play. I’m just excited for the guys that they have an opportunity to play another game that means something. When it’s Pittsburgh, there’s a little more there.”
Asked whether the Blue Jackets have earned the Penguins’ respect with their play, Columbus center Mark Letestu said, “I don’t care what they think. We regard ourselves in that way. We’ve always thought we belonged. The outside noise really doesn’t concern us.
“We feel like we’re in a good situation. It’s in our hands. We’re on home ice, against a rival. I’m excited about it. We’re going to be ready to play.”
Both teams will have plenty of skill on the ice. Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin (96), Phil Kessel (87) and Sidney Crosby (86) all rank in the top 10 in the league in points. Columbus’ Artemi Panarin set a franchise record on Tuesday with 80 points.
Also playing a prominent role for the Blue Jackets will be defensemen Seth Jones Johnny Unitas Jersey, Zach Werenski and Ian Cole, who will face his former Penguins teammates for the first time since he was acquired at the trade deadline in February.
“I would say it’ll be a playoff atmosphere,” Crosby said. “I think the two teams have played some pretty intense games over the years. With the importance of the game, the fact that we’ve been pretty closely matched all year, I think it’ll be very similar to the Washington game the other night.”
When a team is holding a competition for a job, one doesn’t really expect to hear one of the competitors extolling how quickly a younger player is coming along.
Jets quarterback Josh McCown has been seen as an ideal mentor for a younger player for several seasons, however, and one of the reasons why is that he’s willing to say when his teammates are doing well. That’s what he did on Tuesday when asked about rookie Sam Darnold‘s work during the opening practice of minicamp.
“Every day I feel like he goes out and gets better,” McCown said Ramon Humber Jersey , via the New York Post. “I think for all of us, but really for young players, you’re discovering something new every time you step on the field.”
McCown took the most first-team reps on Tuesday with Darnold getting more than Teddy Bridgewater, although head coach Todd Bowles suggested one shouldn’t read too much into that pecking order. That will be a harder case to make in August, especially if Darnold begins to cut into McCown’s edge.
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