Penguins' Metropolitan Division less than impressive



This was supposed to be a breakout season for Columbus.

After all, the Blue Jackets finished the previous one with a rousing 8-1 surge, barely missing out on a playoff berth.

The incumbent Vezina Trophy recipient, Sergei Bobrovsky, is on their payroll and they have an accomplished coach in Todd Richards.

Their lineup, though hardly intimidating, is studded with capable personnel -- players who could reasonably be expected to challenge for a spot in the postseason.

But going into their game against the Penguins tonight at Consol Energy Center -- and despite coming off back-to-back shutout victories -- the Blue Jackets are sputtering along at 12-14-3, not all that far above Eastern Conference bottom-feeders such as Buffalo, Florida and the New York Islanders.

The Blue Jackets, though, have righted themselves of late, going 7-6-1 in their past 14 games.

And because they, like the Penguins, reside in the NHL's weakest division, the Metropolitan, the Blue Jackets' stumbling start doesn't necessarily mean they will be playing for only their position in next year's draft for the next four months.

Scouting report
 
Matchup: Penguins vs. Columbus Blue Jackets, 7:38 p.m. today, Consol Energy Center.

TV, Radio: CBS Sports Network, KDKA-FM (93.7).
 
Probable goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. Curtis McElhinney for Blue Jackets.

Penguins: Are 6-2 at home all time against Blue Jackets. ... C Sidney Crosby has three goals, nine assists in eight career games against Columbus. ... Have not given up more than one power-play goal in a game since Oct. 12 in Tampa.

Blue Jackets: Are 5-7-2 on road, including 4-2 loss Nov. 1 at Consol Energy Center. ... C Ryan Johansen has four-game points streak. ... Have scored first in 10 of their 12 victories.

Hidden stat: Penguins are 14-4 when winning 50 percent or better of their faceoffs.

Just how bad has the Metropolitan been through the first two-plus months of the season?

Consider that members of the other Eastern Conference division, the Atlantic, are 38-25-8 against Metropolitan opponents, and that only two of the 14 Western Conference clubs -- Edmonton and Nashville -- have losing records against Metropolitan teams.

Crunch those numbers any way you like, but the bottom line on the Metropolitan doesn't change.

Sure, half of the division's eight teams -- the Penguins, Washington, the New York Rangers and Carolina -- had winning records going into Sunday, but the other three divisions have at least five above .500.

"I don't have any good reason for it," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "I think [other Metropolitan clubs] are better teams than our records indicate at this point in time."

That's a fairly popular sentiment, and Metropolitan teams such as Philadelphia and the Rangers have overcome bad starts to become competitive.

Still, more than a third of the season has passed, so a case could be made that, for the most part, Metropolitan teams are what their records say they are. Which, in most cases, isn't very good.

"We're almost at the 30-game mark for everybody," Bylsma said. "Coaches say, 'Your record is what your record is.' In 10 games, a small segment of the year, you can kind of say, 'OK, you didn't start well.' But our records are what they are.

"I think it's going to get better, but we're 30 games deep. We're through a significant portion of the season, so maybe it's an anomaly, that that's what we're going to be as a division."

The Penguins' immediate concern -- aside from holding together a lineup that has been ravaged by injuries and now potentially a suspension for winger James Neal -- is Columbus, which is coming off consecutive shutouts against Tampa Bay and Minnesota and has not allowed a goal in 137 minutes and 45 seconds.

The most surprising aspect of that streak is that backup goalie Curtis McElhinney, not Bobrovsky, has been responsible for most of it.

Bobrovsky, who dominated the Penguins at Consol Energy Center while playing for Philadelphia, was supposed to be the Blue Jackets' linchpin this season but did not perform at the level he reached last season before injuring his groin against the Lightning and going on injured reserve.

He is 10-11-2 with a 2.72 goals-against average and .909 save percentage. Last season, Bobrovsky was 21-11-6 with a 2.00 and a .932.

"Their team played real well [last season] and their goaltender played spectacularly," Bylsma said. "He was really good. That's probably been the area of their game that hasn't been spectacular.

"One goal here and one goal there, you lose a game. It makes a significant difference."

Still, the Blue Jackets seem to be climbing out of the hole they dug for themselves in the early weeks of the season. They are just four points out of one of the three playoff berths guaranteed to go to Metropolitan teams, although the Penguins seem confident that Columbus isn't the only team in the division that will regain some luster in the coming months.

"When you look in February and March, I think it's going to be a little bit different," center Brandon Sutter said. "You'll see teams in our division a little higher in the [conference] standings."

If only because, in at least a few cases, they couldn't fall much lower.


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

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