When two NHL teams meet, the primary objective is always two points and a victory. But when victory seems unlikely, sometimes you have to look at secondary goals which might be served even in a loss.
For the struggling Blue Jackets, facing the Pittsburgh Penguins in a Sunday matinee matchup offered a daunting challenge, particularly after the hosts had dismantled the Tampa Bay Lightning the previous day. On the other hand, the battle offered a strong opportunity for the Ohio club to showcase potential trade bait before Monday's deadline, particularly captain Rick Nash.
The game also marked the debut for Jack Johnson with Columbus following the defenseman's acquisition from Los Angeles, though he was unable to practice with the team prior to gametime due to the trade not being officially complete in the eyes of the NHL before late Saturday afternoon. Pairing him with James Wisniewski, the team would have a chance to see how the blueliner might fit into their lineup going forward.
Finally, the Penguins had a secondary objective of their own -- giving recently called up netminder Brad Thiessen his first look at the NHL level, while offering Marc-Andre Fleury a rest in the back to back starts.
In the first period, both Thiessen and Columbus netminder Curtis Sanford were sharp, though Sanford had the lion's share of the work. Pittsburgh dominated possession in the Columbus zone for much of the afternoon. Hammering the Columbus net for 15 shots to five against their own. It took several acrobatic stops from Sanford on Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal to keep the game scoreless through 20 minutes.
Despite the hammering, Columbus came out with a noticeable jump in its play for the second period, with increasing physical confrontation, but the adjustment appeared to backfire when Derek Dorsett was called for boarding midway through the period.
With the struggling Columbus penalty kill facing the NHL's most dangerous goal scorer, a secondary objective was suddenly achieved in dramatic fashion.
With Nash out to lead the Blue Jackets' PK, defenseman Nikita Nikitin banked a clearing pass out and around the Pittsburgh D, sending it off the boards and into the open ice for his captain, who charged down the ice and blasted a shot through Thiessen for his first short-handed goal of the season.
Columbus proceeded to protect their lead for much of the period, but the Penguins finally broke through on their third power play of the period when James Neal intercepted an attempt to clear the puck and set up Malkin with a cross ice pass. The former (and quite possibly future) Hart Trophy winner collected the puck and unleashed a wrister that cleanly beat the journeyman goaltender to tie the game with less than a minute left in the period.
Tied to start the final frame, Columbus tried to keep Pittsburgh to the perimeter, but an attempt to take away a shooting lane by the newly acquired Johnson screened Sanford from a seeing-eye shot by Pascal Dupuis that slipped between Sanford's leg and the post.
Once the lead was secured, Pittsburgh kept the pressure on the Columbus defense, hemming them into their own zone for long stretches before finally drawing another power-play opportunity. The Penguins appeared to strike immediately off the faceoff thanks to a blistering slap shot by Kris Letang, but a questionable goaltender interference call resulted in the goal being disallowed.
Undaunted, the Penguins went back to work, moving the puck and forcing the Columbus PK to collapse in front of the net before setting up Letang for another powerful shot. The defenseman found back of the net once again.
Joe Vitale extended the Penguins' lead to 4-1 when he finished a shot from Eric Tangradi that had slipped through Sanford's legs, poking it across the line, and though Columbus would finally respond with a goal by Vinny Prospal off an odd man rush on the ensuing faceoff, the game had already been effectively decided.
Johnson had several strong offensive plays and seemed to find good passing chemistry with his partner, but the defensive combination with Wisniewski seemed problematic, particularly on the PK.
Meanwhile, though Thiessen was not exceptionally tested, the goaltender did handle 20 saves on 22 shots for his first win, while Sanford finished with a .900 save percentage, allowing four goals on 44 shots.
Finally, Nash refused to comment on any possible trade rumors, though he did tell members of the press that it had been "a great time living in Columbus." Though Nash spoke of the fans deserving a winning team on the ice, it appears increasingly likely that both he and Blue Jackets' management feel the best route achieving that product will be without the all-star forward.