COLUMBUS, Ohio —Penguins-Blue Jackets is evolving into something special, but it needs more tension to take the next step.
That tension between cities, coaches, players and most importantly, the teams exists. Pittsburgh beat Columbus in a 5-4 overtime thriller at Nationwide Arena on Sunday, a Game 3 that displayed all of the above.
The Blue Jackets jumped out to a 3-1 lead in the first seven minutes behind two goals from Cam Atkinson and a slap-shot by Zach Werenski. That ignited the home crowd into delirium. Pittsburgh scored three goals in return behind Bryan Rust and Jake Guentzel, including one that came after Werenski took a puck to the face which left a blood trail on the ice. Werenski returned, however, and Brandon Dubinsky sent the game into overtime in the final minutes for the Blue Jackets.
Overtime touched that next level like playoff hockey so often does. Shots clanged off the post and cross-bar on both sides. Penguins star Sidney Crosby then found Guentzel in front of the net for the game-winner. That silenced the crowd. That broke the tension for both sides.
"It was fun, the intensity, the atmosphere," Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury said. "The game was long and people were on their feet all game. It was a fun game to play."
Pittsburgh took a3-0 lead in the series. That's the difference right now. The Penguins —especially their fans —aren't ready to recognize this as that next-gen Eastern Conference rivalry. You can't blame them. Pittsburgh is the defending Stanley Cup champions with long-standing rivalries againstthe Flyers, Capitals and Rangers. Penguins fans tend to point East when having rivalry conversations.
You can feel it on the other side. Blue Jackets want in that conversation, and it wouldn't hurt if they got there at Pittsburgh's expense.Columbus is an emerging NHL franchise in a growing city that knows how to get behind a team. See: the 80,000-plus that went to the Ohio State spring game.
Penguins-Blue Jackets needs one more thing. Columbus needs to win a playoff series between the two teams before we can take that big step. Otherwise it's a just a heated matchup. Everything else is in place that makes great rivalries great is in place.
Geography doesn't have to make the rivalry, but it's implied when the Ohio River touches the feud. The cities are separated by a little more than 180 miles, and the terrain features more than a few Pittsburgh fans on the Southeast side of the Ohio border.
That breeds a special brand of resentment. It happens on the college level occasionally, like that time Ohio State beat Pittsburgh 72-0 in 1996.
It hits another level when pro franchises meet in the playoffs. Awesomely nasty games follow.The Bengals-Steelers 2015-16 AFC Wild Card game and Reds-Pirates 2013 NL Wild Card game are recent examples, but they share that all-too familiar common theme.
Pittsburgh wins, often in spectacular fashion like the 17-point comeback in the 2002-03 AFC Wild Card game against the Cleveland Browns. You'd have to go back to the 1990 NLCS —when the Reds beat the Pirates 4-2 – to find the last time an Ohio franchise eliminated a Pittsburgh franchise in the postseason.
Columbus had their first chance in the 2014 NHL playoffs in a series the Penguins won the series 4-2, but it had tension.
"They are the closest city team that we play, so I think obviously last time we played them in the playoffs," Atkinson said before the series started on April 11 . "The rivalry took off a little bit. Every time we play them in the regular season it's always packed. Those are some of the most fun games to play."
It's fun now because good coaches, players and teams are involved. Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan and Columbus coach John Tortorella are heatedon the ice and close friends off it. Pittsburgh (111 points) and Columbus (108 points) split their regular-season meetings, and physical play dominates the matchups.
"I don't think it's any secret how this series is being played," Sullivan said before Game 3. "We have a clear understanding of how we're trying to play, and I think they have the same understanding of how we're trying to play. There is familiarity on both sides."
It's nasty, too. Columbus' Matt Calvert was suspended for Game 3 after breaking his stick on Tom Kuhnhackl's back. Pittsburgh scored a goal when Werenski was struck in the face by a puck but play wasn't stopped, though Tortorella said he's seen that called both ways.
Werenski played until he couldn't see in overtime. "Balls as big as the building, Tortorella said about Werenski afterward.That's the kind of toughness that exists here, where no excuses are made.
"Sure, it's a tough loss," Tortorella said. "We know the situation. Clear your head, go to work, play another game."
Dubinsky has felt that for a long time. He's been in the same division for 11 years as the Penguins; "a long-ass time," he says. The Blue Jackets played their first season in 2000-01. It's taken 16 seasons to develop a rivalry with the next-door neighbor.
"To me the proximity isn't really what makes it that way," Dubinsky said before the series. ‘These guys are a divisional team so we've faced them a lot the last few years. We've had a playoff series against them, so we have a history."
That's what's next. Pittsburgh and Columbus figure to play a lot more games —and probably playoff series —given the current NHL playoff format. That means the Blue Jackets will get their chance to dig out of a 3-0 hole now. If that doesn't happen, then chances are these teams will see each other again soon. For now, the next chapter is simply Game 4.
"Game 4 is always the most difficult," he said. "They're a good team and they're a proud team and they're well-coached and we know that we are probably going to see their best game."
If the Blue Jackets win, then that would be the next small step into what this rivalry really could be. When it does, everyone on both sides will feel that tension like never before.