Penguins notebook: Playoff series could trigger rivalry at last


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Game 1 of the Penguins-Columbus playoff series Wednesday wasn't particularly nasty, although it was physical with a combined 75 hits.

By the time the series ends, the teams that play in arenas less than 200 miles apart might inject more emotion into future meetings. Until this season, they were in opposite conferences and played only once or twice a season, if that, and never in the postseason.

The Blue Jackets have moved to the Eastern Conference under NHL realignment and share the Metropolitan Division with the Penguins.

They met five times in the regular season, as many games as the previous four seasons combined.

The Penguins swept those five games, though, and animosity wasn't at a particularly high level.

Penguins coach Dan Bylsma, who played for Los Angeles and Anaheim, believes that, even when teams are close geographically, it sometimes takes a playoff showdown to spark a real rivalry.

"Having them in our division for the first time this year, the proximity, you want to build a rivalry right off the hop," Bylsma said. "I'm not sure -- having played in a place like Anaheim and LA -- you get it without getting a playoff matchup. Once you get that animosity of the playoffs, you're going to have a rivalry."

Columbus center Mark Letestu, who broke into the NHL with the Penguins, agreed.

"This was missing from it -- the playoff series, the moments you can draw back on to make it a rivalry," he said.

"This was needed and, hopefully, this turns it into one."

Penguins fans have flooded the Nationwide Arena stands when the teams have met in Columbus. The Blue Jackets have attempted to stem that flow for this series, which resumes with Game 2 Saturday at Consol Energy Center before shifting west.

For several days, they restricted sales of tickets to Games 3 and 4 to Ohio residents. They announced Thursday they will do the same thing when tickets for a potential Game 6 go on sale next week.

Penguins winger James Neal doesn't blame Columbus for that tactic, but he's not sure it will work.

"I agree with that. Why wouldn't you?" he said of the restriction. "But I think there are a lot of Pittsburgh people who have moved to Ohio. Our fan base is awesome.

"Every building we travel to, it's packed [with Penguins fans]. We enjoy it. We love playing in front of them."

Gibbons' speed suits Crosby

Brian Gibbons replaced Beau Bennett on Sidney Crosby's right side in Game 1, a 4-3 Penguins win and just might hold onto that spot for a while.

Bylsma said Thursday that Gibbons is "the fastest guy on our team," and speed is a quality Crosby craves in his linemates.

"Sid's a player who likes and needs his line and his linemates to force the other team with their speed and with getting on defensemen and being able to read off that," Bylsma said.

"[Gibbons] forces other teams with his speed, forces them with the pressure he can put on the puck. Sid is able to read off that.

"That's something he's always wanted on his wings."

Faceoff issues

The Penguins struggled mightily on faceoffs during the first period of Game 1, winning 7 of 23 (30 percent), but rebounded over the final 40 minutes to finish 40-31 (56 percent).

Bylsma volunteered that "we got drubbed in the first period pretty badly," although he said three of their losses came when a Penguins center intentionally tried to go forward with the puck, rather than pulling back toward a teammate.

He said the success rate improved as coaches got a feel for how individual matchups were playing out, and that as the game progressed, the Penguins did a better job of recovering "50-50" pucks that weren't cleanly controlled by either side.

"We were better with that as the game went on," he said. "Our second and third periods were a lot better."

Columbus coach Todd Richards had a different view.

"I don't think it's the matchups; I think it's the mentality of the faceoffs," he said.

Tip-ins

The Penguins did not hold a practice Thursday. The Blue Jackets, who flew home after Game 1 with two days between games, held an optional practice. ... Injured wingers R.J. Umberger (unspecified) and Nick Foligno (knee) were among those who practiced in Columbus. Umberger, a Plum native, might play Saturday depending on how practice goes for him today, but Foligno won't. ... Crosby had the top-selling jersey via the NHL's web sales this season. Also in the top 25 were Evgeni Malkin (eighth) and Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury (25th).

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


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