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Penguins visit Blue Jackets in Metro showdown
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- It's getting to the point in the season where every game is a big one for teams in playoff contention, and Sunday's matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Columbus Blue Jackets carries a little more weight because it's between division rivals.
The Penguins (34-22-4) travel to Nationwide Arena for the first time since the first round of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs to face the Blue Jackets (29-24-5).
Pittsburgh took the first two games in the season series at home and the Penguins are playing much better than the last time the teams met, going 9-1-1 in their past 11 games and winning four in a row.
The Penguins prevailed against the Toronto Maple Leafs with a 5-3 victory Saturday night to move within one point of the first-place Washington Capitals in the Metropolitan Division.
"We're just trying to stay focused on the task at hand," said Penguins goaltender Matt Murray, who is 8-0-1 in his last nine games. "If we take care of our business and do what we need to do, we're going to have a good chance to win night in and night out."
Bryan Rust and Evgeni Malkin each had a goal and two assists for the Penguins.
Malkin achieved a milestone, becoming the fourth player in Penguins history with 900 career points. He boosted his season totals to 32 goals and 66 points.
"He's playing at a high level right now," said Penguins left winger Carl Hagelin, who had a goal and an assist Saturday. "It's fun to watch him."
The Blue Jackets picked up one point with a 2-1 overtime loss at home Friday night to the Philadelphia Flyers, but remain a point out of the second wild-card spot in the East.
"Obviously, I'd rather be on the inside than try to keep up," Blue Jackets rookie center Pierre-Luc Debois said. "Now it's a challenge. Every game until the end of the year is going to be important and especially against a Metro team it's going to be even bigger.
"It's going to be a big game. We've played them twice. It will be fun to play against them with our fans. It's going to be an intense game. They've got good players."
The Blue Jackets showed signs of revving up their offensive game with more than 50 shots in goal in each of the previous three games before struggling to score against the Flyers despite outshooting them 36-25.
Still, Columbus captain Nick Foligno likes the way the team is trending.
"We're a team that's going to control our own fate," he said. "It's not going to be other teams. It's going to be how we play down the stretch that's ultimately going to decide it. That's a great thing to be in that position. It's hard to be a team that can decide its fate each and every night."
Forward Cam Atkinson tied the score against the Flyers late in the third period with his 10th goal of the season, but the Blue Jackets were unable to add to their 12 overtime wins this year.
"We can't take our foot off the gas," Atkinson said. "This is the stretch and it's do or die really. A couple of games are going to determine whether you make the playoffs or not."
The reason the Blue Jackets salvaged a point was the stellar play of goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, who made several key saves.
"At this time of the year, you play (your best) against anybody, any team, you know?" Bobrovsky said. "That's the time when you need the points so bad, and you have to be at your best."
In Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella's view, the team was hardly at its best. He's clearly frustrated and struggling to explain the inconsistent effort when so much is at stake this time of the year.
"A huge surprise. I have no idea," he said. "I don't have an answer for you how we can play with that type of (lack of) energy, that type of execution in an important game like this.
"You can ask me 10 different ways what happened, I don't have a damn answer for your question."
The Blue Jackets had one smidgen of good news Saturday. Defenseman Ryan Murray, who has missed the past 34 games with an upper-body injury suffered Nov. 27, was activated off injured reserve and sent to Cleveland of the American Hockey League on a conditioning assignment.
Murray has one goal and four assists in 24 games this season with the Blue Jackets.
Updated February 17, 2018