Matt Murray stopped 25 shots for his 10th career shutout and the Pittsburgh Penguins opened a pivotal home-and-home with the Columbus Blue Jackets by rolling to a 3-0 victory on Thursday night.
Phil Kessel scored for the first time in 17 games for the Penguins. Nick Bjugstad collected his ninth of the season for Pittsburgh. Sidney Crosby took a high stick from Columbus’ Boone Jenner in the third period but returned to add an empty-net goal and extend his goal streak to six consecutive games as the Penguins created a little bit of breathing room between themselves and the Blue Jackets in the race for a playoff spot in the crowded Eastern Conference.
The Penguins have won eight straight over Columbus and moved into third place in the Metropolitan Division by clamping down on the Blue Jackets.
Joonas Korpisalo received a surprise start and finished with 28 saves for Columbus, but his teammates couldn’t get anything by Murray.
The Blue Jackets went all-in at last week’s trade deadline, but the decision to bring in Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel and Adam McQuaid hasn’t exactly provided an immediate spark. Columbus is 2-4 since the trio’s arrival, with two losses coming at the hands of the Penguins.
Coach John Tortorella tried to downplay the home-and-home with Pittsburgh, saying his team just needed to go and have fun. He made a curious decision to start Korpisalo — winless since Jan. 15 — over No. 1 goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, claiming the two-time Vezina Trophy winner needed to get some rest with the stretch looming.
The change in net did little to change the Blue Jackets’ fortunes against the Penguins. Defenseman Scott Harrington was called for tripping barely two minutes in and Pittsburgh pounced. Evgeni Malkin collected a Patric Hornqvist shot behind the Blue Jackets’ net and fed Kessel at the far post. Kessel banked it in off a sprawled Korpisalo for his first goal in more than a month.
Tortorella decided to challenge the goal, claiming goaltender’s interference, but the call stood and Tortorella burned his only timeout before most of his players had even broken a sweat.
Though Korpisalo quickly settled in, he couldn’t quite match Murray, whose streaky season is one of the reasons Pittsburgh’s playoff positioning is so tenuous. Making his sixth straight start, he appears to be back on the upswing. He made several key stops to preserve the lead, and late in the second period received a boost when Bjugstad finished off a sequence of extended pressure by collecting a pass from Jared McCann then pivoting into space in the slot before beating Korpisalo between the legs with 1:13 to go in the second for fourth goal since being brought over in a trade with Florida on Feb. 1.
The chippy play between the rivals separated by three hours geographically but by considerably more in terms of stature perked up at times. Pittsburgh’s Garrett Wilson and Columbus captain Nick Foligno received fighting majors in the second period following a brawl that left Wilson’s forehead bloody. Jenner received a double-minor for high sticking Crosby early in the third.
Though the Penguins couldn’t score on the extended power play, it did allow them to milk the clock, and when Crosby finished Columbus off with his 31st of the season, the Penguins had dealt the Blue Jackets’ playoff hopes a serious blow.
NOTES: Penguins D Kris Letang missed his fifth straight game with an upper-body injury. … Pittsburgh is 9-1 while wearing its yellow third jerseys. … The Blue Jackets were 0 for 3 on the power play. The Penguins were 1 for 5. Malkin’s assist on Kessel’s goal pushed his career point total to 997.
Blue Jackets: Columbus has issues at Nationwide Arena. The Blue Jackets are just 17-16-2 at home this season.
Penguins: Pittsburgh hasn’t lost on the road to Columbus in the regular season since Feb. 17, 2017 (4-0).