Penguins notebook: Blue Jackets newest rival? Not just yet


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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- This is not one of the NHL's great rivalries.

Or even one of the better ones.

Or much of a rivalry at all, for that matter.

But that could change.

And pretty quickly.

For while Columbus isn't any closer geographically to Pittsburgh than it was when the Blue Jackets entered the NHL in 2000, the franchises definitely are now that they're in the same division.

The Blue Jackets, who closed out a home-and-home series with the Penguins Saturday night at Nationwide Arena, were transplanted to the Eastern Conference this season after spending more than a decade in the West.

What's more, they were dropped into the newly formed Metropolitan Division, where the Penguins also reside.

Which means that how many points separate the teams suddenly means even more than how few miles separate their home cities. Besides, familiarity breeds contempt, and the Penguins will face Columbus five times, rather than one or two, in 2013-14.

"There's no real history yet, but there's no real reason why it can't start," said Columbus forward R.J. Umberger, a Plum native. "People [in Western Pennsylvania] probably aren't that familiar with our team, even though we're only three hours away, but now they'll have a chance to see us four or five times a year.

"Also, with the chances of [meeting in] the playoffs ... that's where rivalries really begin."

That is something on which players from both teams agree.

"It has potential, but typically rivalries are built over time and playing important games," Penguins winger Craig Adams said. "We'll just have to see.

"If we play them in the playoffs or something like that, it's going to push things forward.

"But I think it has to develop on its own. I don't think people can just hope for it."

Friendly rivalry

Penguins center Sidney Crosby and Columbus defenseman Jack Johnson attended prep school together at Shattuck-St. Mary's in Minnesota and, in the process, became close friends.

Almost like brothers.

The kind of brothers who would arm-wrestle to see who gets the last strip of bacon at breakfast.

"We've always been competitive with each other, in a very healthy way," Johnson said. "We definitely don't let the other one win, as much as we can.

"Whatever it was, we'd always make a game out of it, try to beat each other in whatever it was. When we had a free weekend to go out and play a tennis match, you'd have thought it was Wimbledon.

"We're both probably not really very good, but it got really competitive. I think that's a cool thing, in a lot of ways."

Injury updates

Penguins winger Beau Bennett, who missed his 10th consecutive game Saturday because of an unspecified injury, will return to practice this week, coach Dan Bylsma said.

He added that Bennett likely will be back on the third line when he resumes playing, "depending on the health of our other players."

Right winger James Neal, out since being injured in the season opener, is about to have his workout regimen upgraded but continues to be listed as "week-to-week."

"When we see him return to the ice, it may get a little more clear, as to the length [of his absence]," Bylsma said.

Penguins carrying the load

The Metropolitan Division has had a pretty rough first month of existence.

Going into Saturday, the Penguins (10-4) were the only one of its eight members to have a winning record; each of the other three divisions had at least four clubs above .500.

Nonetheless, Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards believes the division will right itself and burnish its reputation a bit as the season plays out.

"Maybe teams are struggling right now, but we all know how it works over an 82-game season," he said. "You have your good moments, and you have some moments where you aren't playing so good.

"Right now, I think there are a lot of teams that haven't been playing their best and, because of that, I think everyone is still in this race and in the thick of things. ... I know that as the season goes on, they're going to find their games."


Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com or Twitter @MolinariPG.

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