Even with the shift to Nationwide Arena, Penguins fans still could have an impact

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The Penguins surrendered home-ice advantage in their first-round playoff series against Columbus when the Blue Jackets beat them Saturday night in Game 2.

Technically, anyway.

Sure, three of the five games remaining in this best-of-seven are scheduled for Nationwide Arena, beginning at 7:08 p.m. today with Game 3.

But just how much of an edge that will be for the Blue Jackets probably won't be clear until after the gates open, and it's possible to get a read on the loyalties of the crowd.

Which, if regular-season precedent is any indication, could be pretty evenly split. Or maybe even slanted in the Penguins' favor.

Scouting report

Matchup: Penguins vs. Columbus Blue Jackets, 7:08 p.m. today, Nationwide Arena. Columbus, Ohio.

TV, radio: Root, WXDX-FM (105.9).

Probable goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins; Sergei Bobrovsky for Blue Jackets.

Penguins: Are 4-7 in past 11 road playoff games, with only two of those victories coming in regulation. ... C Sidney Crosby has at least one point in 12 consecutive games against Columbus, including regular-season meetings. ... Have all-time record of 21-11 in Game 3 when playing on road.

Blue Jackets: Were 22-15-4 in regular season at home, despite losing three games there to Penguins. ... D Jack Johnson has 15 points, three of them goals, in 14 career playoff games. ... Own one of the most efficient power plays in these playoffs, with three goals in 10 tries.

Hidden stat: Penguins have lost three or more games in a row in three of their past five series.

That's been the norm in recent seasons, especially on weekends, and there was a strong Penguins presence in the seats when they won all three games at Nationwide Arena in the regular season.

"We've kind of laughed about it, playing road games at home," Blue Jackets defenseman Jack Johnson said. "The last time we played a regular-season game there, it was probably 60 percent Penguins fans."

When the Penguins scored, which happened 10 times in those three games, the decibel level of the fans' reaction almost approached that of the arena's cannon, which is set off anytime Columbus gets a goal.

"Sometimes, in the regular season, it's a little shocking when they score a goal and you hear an eruption," Columbus defenseman James Wisniewski said. "Usually, that doesn't happen. Usually, you hear more silence than anything when the other team scores a goal."

Columbus management knows Penguins fans have packed Nationwide Arena for regular-season games for the better part of a decade, and certainly doesn't object to the revenue those ticket sales generated.

But when the first-round match-up with the Penguins was set and tickets were put on public sale, the Blue Jackets limited them to people with Ohio addresses for the first four days.

But even Columbus players seem skeptical that strategy will have the intended effect.

"There are probably some Ohio people who are Penguins fans because there were no Columbus Blue Jackets back in the day," Wisniewski said. "They might have been able to get some tickets."

Whether the idea to use geography to restrict sales was borrowed from Washington owner Ted Leonsis, who once famously had the Capitals deny playoff-ticket requests emanating from the 412 area code, isn't clear, but the objective was the same.

Whether it was worth the trouble should be apparent tonight.

"For the first [four] days, we were only selling to Ohio residents," Blue Jackets right winger Cam Atkinson said. "But I'm sure there's a ton of Pittsburgh fans in Ohio. I'll be curious to see how the turnout is going to be, but I'm sure our fan support is going to be unbelievable."

Because of the increased local interest in, and support for, the Blue Jackets as the playoffs approached, the Penguins anticipate a more hostile crowd for Games 3 and 4 than they generally face.

"I don't know for sure, but probably," defenseman Matt Niskanen said.

How much, if at all, the crowd affects the outcome is conjecture, although players on both sides tend to downplay the impact fans can have.

"At the end of the day, I've never seen a fan score a goal, so it really [isn't] a factor in the game," Johnson said.

Penguins left winger Chris Kunitz echoed that feeling -- "The environment makes it fun, the emotion when people are yelling and cheering," he said. "But after that, you just have to make sure you're playing the game" -- although Niskanen suggested that a fiercely pro-Columbus crowd could help the Blue Jackets.

"At home, I do believe they can give you energy," he said.

That, Niskanen added, is why it behooves the Penguins to prevent Columbus from getting a good start.

"The fans aren't going to affect us, but they can affect [Columbus]," he said. "When you say, 'Take the crowd out of it,' [the idea is that] they're not going to get any extra boost from being at home and feeling the energy of the building."

Regardless of whether fans can influence what happens on the ice, players on both teams seem to be aware of whose supporters are filling the seats.

"When you walk out and half the crowd is wearing Pittsburgh jerseys, it's hard not to see," Atkinson said.

The mix of fans in the seats at Nationwide Arena could begin to change tonight. Just as the lopsided nature of the relationship between the Penguins and Blue Jackets might have begun to turn Saturday, when Columbus beat them for the first time in eight games.

"It's the start of a rivalry," Atkinson said. "We're right up the road from one another. We just have to start winning some games."

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

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