The Columbus Blue Jackets are trying to gain traction, but they could run into a team far ahead of them on that count Tuesday when the Pittsburgh Penguins visit.
The Penguins, after a stutter-step start, will be riding a four-game winning streak — including two shutouts — going into the game.
After sweeping a three-game road trip through California, Pittsburgh stopped home for a game Saturday and turned in a performance that seemed to key in on exactly the identity it was built for in a 4-0 win over Buffalo.
“The guys, in general, I think, are playing more cohesive hockey,” said defenseman Erik Karlsson, a key addition during the offseason who scored twice Saturday. “Guys are starting to find that chemistry that you don’t have to think about it. It’s just coming together more naturally.
“We’re still early in the journey, and it still feels like we’ve got a lot more to give, which is a nice feeling to have.”
The Penguins have at times been frustrated by difficulty scoring, something that might not have been predicted given their talent — “We’re wired for offense; it’s in our DNA,” coach Mike Sullivan said — and at other times bitten by defensive lapses that have led to odd-man rushes and strong scoring chances for opponents.
During its four-game winning streak, Pittsburgh has outscored its opponents 20-5. That has fostered a growing amount of confidence.
“It’s definitely higher than it was a couple weeks ago,” Penguins winger Bryan Rust said. “By no means are we satisfied with where we’re at, but we’re definitely happy with the strides we made.”
Columbus would like to get where the Penguins are, but right now there’s a noticeable gap.
The Blue Jackets, tied for last in the Eastern Conference, have lost five straight (0-3-2) and are 1-5-4 in their past 10. They are coming off a particularly stinging loss Sunday against the Rangers in New York.
After Columbus protected a one-goal lead through the third period, New York’s Alexis Lafreniere tied it with 11 seconds left in regulation on his second goal of the team. He then scored the only goal by either team in a shootout for a 4-3 Rangers win, and two points the Blue Jackets thought they had played well enough to earn shrunk to one point.
“It’s tough for us to get two points right now, and that’s how it’s going to be until we figure it out,” Columbus veteran forward Sean Kuraly said.
Up until that tying goal, Blue Jackets coach Pascal Vincent thought his club had found some footing in protecting the narrow lead in the third.
“We were playing the right way, so that’s a step forward,” Vincent said.
One bright spot for Columbus that night, and throughout the season, was rookie Adam Fantilli, who scored against the Rangers. Even at 19, he has been taking on a prominent role for the team.
He seems to be determined more than down about the team’s spot.
“I hate losing,” said Fantilli, who has four goals and nine points in 15 games.
“I want to do my part in being able to fix that. We’re a young team, but we’re extremely skilled, and I think we (can) play a lot better than we’re showing.”