Penguins, Jackets to play big game amid virus scare

The game Thursday between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets is important for the Metropolitan Division standings, but it will be played at Nationwide Arena under unusual circumstances.

After announcing the game would allow ticketholders, the Blue Jackets reversed course Wednesday afternoon and said the game will be played in front of only essential and credentialed people. That was in response to an expected state ban on large gatherings because of the ongoing coronavirus scare.

The Penguins (40-23-6, 86 points) are third in the division, four points behind first-place Washington and five points ahead of Columbus (33-22-15, 81 points).

The Penguins are counting on continuing something they seemingly started Tuesday in their 5-2 win at New Jersey.

After losing eight of 10, including two home games in as many days against Metropolitan Division teams over the weekend, Pittsburgh appeared to get back to the determined and responsible style that put the team in a good spot in the division before that swoon.

"(It) was a step in the right direction, for sure," goaltender Matt Murray said. "We did everything we needed to do. ... If we keep building on this one, we'll be in good shape."

One player in particular is a symbol of the Penguins' potential turnaround. Center Evgeni Malkin called out his team after Saturday's loss to Washington. While that didn't seem to sink in Sunday for another loss against Carolina, Tuesday seemed different -- and Malkin led the way.

Against the Devils, he scored twice in the third period, and his three-point night extended his point streak to five games (four goals, seven assists). He leads the team with 74 points after a down season in 2018-19 in which he turned the puck over often and took costly penalties.

"I think he's been terrific," Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said of Malkin. "He's having a real good year for us. ... He's not as high risk a player. He's making better decisions. And he's paying attention to details."

The Blue Jackets, meanwhile, are paying attention to the standings, as they currently hold an Eastern Conference wild-card spot.

"I'm looking at the standings more this year than I have prior," coach John Tortorella told The Athletic. "I look at our record, some of those overtime losses -- we have 15 of them -- and you wonder if maybe we could turn a few of those around, where would we be?

"We're looking behind us (in the standings), too, but we're looking above, as to how close can we be there."

Columbus moved into a wild-card slot Sunday when it downed Vancouver 2-1 to wrap up a 1-1-1 trip to Western Canada.

The Blue Jackets will be playing a division game for the first time since Feb. 20 and have six of their final 12 game within the Metropolitan.

"There's not that many games or us left," said goaltender Elvis Merzlikins, who returned from a concussion Sunday to make 26 saves at Vancouver. "Every game is important. ... We have to stick together, like we are doing, and play every shift as hard as we can."

--Field Level Media