Blue Jackets put up a fight these days for Penguins


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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Follow along with the bouncing puck:

If the Columbus Blue Jackets had not moved this season from the Western Conference to the East, specifically to the Metropolitan Division, they likely wouldn't have practiced Saturday at Nationwide Arena.

If they hadn't practiced, winger Blake Comeau and center Brandon Dubinsky wouldn't have gotten into a barking match on the benches, then fought on the ice.

And if those two not fought, it would not have been a lively topic of discussion afterward for the Blue Jackets and Penguins, who practiced subsequently at Nationwide Arena and play the Blue Jackets tonight.

Comeau did not comment publicly, Dubinsky downplayed the incident, and the mood in the Columbus locker room was light. Coach Todd Richards, who at the time yelled at the fighters to "Stop it!" afterward defended them.

Scouting report
 
Matchup: Penguins vs. Columbus Blue Jackets, 6:08 p.m. today, Nationwide Arena, Columbus, Ohio.

TV, Radio: Root Sports, WXDX-FM (105.9).

Probable goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins; Curtis McElhinney for Blue Jackets.

Penguins: Have won eight of past nine games. ... Are 3-0 vs. Columbus this season by a combined 9-3. ... Sidney Crosby is one goal shy of tying Kevin Stevens for fourth in franchise history with 260.

Blue Jackets: Have won three games in a row. ... 209 giveaways among fewest in NHL. ... Brandon Dubinsky has 16 points (four goals, 12 assists) in 15 Metropolitan Division games.

Hidden stat: Former Penguins F Mark Letestu has one goal for Blue Jackets and has gone 35 games without scoring.

"There was some intensity in practice and some passion in practice," Richards said. "Sometimes, it bubbles over. And it bubbled over a little bit.

"Nine-to-5 jobs, normal jobs, people have disagreements, arguments all the time. In hockey, it's no different. They have disagreements, and sometimes it bubbles over. Sometimes, it's OK to drop the gloves."

In years past, the Blue Jackets likely would have canceled practice or held an optional workout after playing a night earlier. Now that they are in the Metropolitan Division, their game Friday night (a 2-1 shootout win) was in New Jersey, not some faraway Western Conference city.

"So much better. Way better," Columbus winger and Plum native R.J. Umberger said of travel in the East. "We've only had one long trip so far out west. [Friday night], home by 12:30, 12:45. That's a huge difference for us.

"This allowed us to have a practice to get ready for [the Penguins]."

With their win Friday, the Blue Jackets (17-17-4) reached .500 for the first time since Oct. 25. Going into Saturday, they were part of a thicket of Metropolitan Division teams with 37 or 38 points.

That's well back of the first-place Penguins (28-11-1, 57 points), but still in position to jockey for a playoff spot.

"It will probably change 150 times before the end of the season, but I'm sure it's going to be a fight all the way through," Blue Jackets center Mark Letestu, formerly of the Penguins, said, no pun intended.

It's taking some time for Columbus to fit in as a member of the new division, the Blue Jackets and Penguins said. The division is made up of former Atlantic Division teams, plus Washington, Carolina and Columbus.

"I don't know if we're comfortable yet," Richards said.

Tonight will be the fourth meeting this season between the Penguins and Blue Jackets. That's as many times as they played between the start of the 2009-10 season and the start of this season.

"I don't think it's built up to the divisional type of game you feel like when you play the Flyers or the Rangers or the Devils, where you've played 25, 30 times in the past years," coach Dan Bylsma said. "It just doesn't quite have that feel to it.

"The proximity that we're in, it can be at some point in time, but I don't think we're there yet."

Although the Penguins have won the first three meetings this season against Columbus, the Blue Jackets are 8-6-1 within the Metropolitan Division and on a 5-1 stretch.

"It probably has something to do with how big the games have been for us," Letestu said. "Seems like the division has been so close -- outside of Pittsburgh ... . The rest of us are really battling."

Again, no pun intended. Letestu meant the battle for playoff spots. If the Blue Jackets' rivalries with Metropolitan Division teams escalate in conjunction with the increased number of games against those teams, perhaps Columbus players will save their fighting words and actions for opponents. Not that anyone seemed to have a problem with the Comeau-Dubinsky row.

It's been years since a fight between teammates broke out in a regular-season Penguins practice, and there were some grins in the visiting locker room when the topic of the Comeau-Dubinsky fight was raised.

Team captain Sidney Crosby, whose opinions on all hockey matters hold sway as the recognized face of the NHL, doesn't think the tight-knit Penguins are above fighting.

"Just because two guys fight doesn't mean you're not cohesive," said Crosby, who isn't necessarily horrified at the idea of teammates fighting at practice. "It would be different it if happened multiple times through the year. That might be not a good thing. Sometimes if things get intense and heated ... . As long as you can forget it pretty quickly, I don't have a problem with it."


Shelly Anderson: shanderson@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1721 and Twitter @pgshelly.

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