PITTSBURGH, Pa. — The Blue Jackets coughed up a late 2-1 lead in the final minute of regulation and lost 3-2 to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Sunday at PPG Paints Arena.
Penguins forward Cory Andonovski tied it 2-2 with 55 seconds remaining with a 6-on-5 goal against Blue Jackets goalie Nolan Lalonde, who’s starting camp in Columbus with an amateur tryout offer. Jason Zucker decided it with a goal 1:58 into the 3-on-3 overtime.
James Neal and Nick Blankenburg scored power-play goals for the Blue Jackets (0-0-1), who opened their preseason with the first in a pair of split-squad games Sunday against the Penguins (1-0-0). Pavel Cajan started in net for Columbus and made 12 saves on 13 shots before relinquishing the net to Lalonde (19 saves on 21 shots).
Here are six takeaways:
Blue Jackets rookie defenseman Nick Blankenburg off to great start
Blankenburg’s impressive NHL debut to end last season is carrying into this one. After undergoing knee surgery to correct a nagging issue that happened during his senior season at the University of Michigan, Blankenburg is making an early splash in his first Blue Jackets training camp.
Aside from his go-ahead goal to cap a power play in the second period, Blankenburg skated 24:38 that included three shots, four attempts, two hits and 2:50 spent killing penalties.
“Anytime I can play a game in the NHL or at (world championships), I gain more confidence,” said Blankenburg, who played in May for the U.S. at the men’s world championship in Finland. “I’m just trying to work as hard as I can and have fun while I’m doing it. My dad always tells me that and it sounds so cliché, but at the end of the day, that’s all I can really do. I’m having a blast doing it.”
Blankenburg continues to draw comparisons to St. Louis Blues defenseman Torey Krug and not just because they’re both 5 foot 9 and grew up in Michigan (Krug went to Michigan State). Blankenburg and Krug both have a feisty side, aren't afraid to hit bigger players and both are effective with their stick in all zones.
Blankenburg’s goal happened a day after he scored twice in a scrimmage Saturday. He put the Blue Jackets up 2-1 at 12:27 of the second with a power-play goal off a wrist shot from between the circles. Kirill Marchenko and Victor Rask assisted.
Blankenburg finished with a minus-1 rating, but made several impressive defensive plays. He’s among a group of young defensemen looking to earn an NHL role and impressed Cleveland Monsters assistant coach Mark Letestu, a former Blue Jackets forward who helped run the Jackets’ bench.
“He’s certainly taken last year and now this first part of training camp and he’s establishing himself as an NHL player ― and it looked like an NHL player (Sunday),” Letestu said. “Sometimes you get a little bit of runway last year with the dress rehearsal (out of college), and this year it’s for real. And he’s taken a step. He looks different than the rest.”
Blue Jackets defenseman Ben Harpur injured in fight
About two minutes into the third period, Blue Jackets defenseman Ben Harpur appeared to be knocked out cold during a fight with Penguins forward Jamie Devane.
Harpur, 27, went down in a heap after taking a huge overhand right to the face that ended the fight. The Blue Jackets’ medical staff was called out, Devane was immediately concerned for Harpur and the 6-6, 231-pound veteran defenseman was helped off the ice by two teammates.
The Blue Jackets said Harpur sustained an “upper-body injury” and flew back to Columbus with the team. It was a scary situation and a stark reminder that fighting in hockey can cause serious repercussions.
“Unfortunately, sometimes it’s an occupational hazard,” said Letestu, who played 11 years in the NHL. “These things happen, but he stepped to the plate with another big guy and it’s unfortunate it happens. It’s part of the game, but, again, he answered the bell. That’s not an easy one. A lot of guys won’t do that.”
Harpur, who’s played parts of the past seven years in the NHL, split last season between the Nashville Predators and Milwaukee Admirals in the American Hockey League. He began his NHL career with the Ottawa Senators and came to Columbus on a professional tryout offer.
The Blue Jackets searched for more “grit” in the offseason and that’s what led to Harpur’s PTO. He’s more of a stay-at-home defenseman and was paired in this game with Marcus Bjork – an international free-agent signee from the Swedish Hockey League.
“I would say I’m more defensive-minded,” Harpur said Friday. “When I played in Nashville (in 2020-21), I was a third pair, shutdown, defensive-minded, penalty-kill guy and a little bit of sandpaper when it’s needed. I’m just trying to bring that size and that element to the game. We had a lot of it in Nashville. We were built on that and our toughness, being hard to play against. I feel like that really suited my game well and that pretty well sums up my game.”
Kirill Marchenko, Yegor Chinakhov working on chemistry with Blue Jackets
Marchenko skated on the same forward line as Chinakhov again, including each getting spots on the second power-play unit.
The Russian forwards also played together during the first three days of camp, including scrimmages Friday and Saturday.
“I like playing with Chinakhov because he’s a good player and he’s a Russian guy,” said Marchenko, a rookie who spent the past four years in Russian professional leagues. “We have good communication. (We’re) good friends. We need more practice. More speaking (with each other), more work ... and I think we can do more scoring.”
Marchenko finished with two shots, three attempts and a block. He had a scoring chance with time running out in regulation, after Pittsburgh tied it 2-2 with a 6-on-5 goal, but Penguins goalie Filip Lindberg made the save.
“I have a good chance in the last seconds and it’s ‘my bad’ not to score and win the game,” Marchenko said. “I want to always score and I need to do more work ... I had chances to score (in the) first period, second period, but when I have a good moment in the last seconds to score, I need to score. It doesn’t matter.”
James Neal, Victor Rask record points for Blue Jackets in overtime loss
James Neal and Victor Rask are the Blue Jackets’ other two veterans in camp on PTO deals. Neal, 35, has played 14 years in the NHL, including four with the Penguins. Vask has eight NHL seasons under his belt and played last season with the Minnesota Wild and Seattle Kraken.
Both factored into the scoring Sunday in Pittsburgh. Neal put Columbus up 1-0 on a power-play goal in the second period, tapping home a no-look pass from Jack Roslovic, and Rask assisted on Blankenburg’s power-play goal later in the period.
Rask and Neal played on the second line together and logged played the most among all forwards. Rask had an assist, three shots, five attempts, a hit and went 5 of 12 (42%) on faceoffs in 19:59. Neal had the goal, six shots, nine attempts, and a blocked shot in 19:14.
Blue Jackets center Jack Roslovic eager to learn new strategic systems
Roslovic centered the top line in Pittsburgh. He had one shot, two hits, two takeaways and dominated on faceoffs by going 15 for 22 (68%).
Vying for one of the top two center positions to start the season, he was eager to learn a portion of the new defensive system the Blue Jackets coaching staff is installing for this season.
“It felt good because we had a long meeting before (the game) about systems, which was nice,” Roslovic said. “It’s nice just to be in the know for what you’re going to be doing for the next 82 games, right? That’s why the preseason games are valuable.”
Blue Jackets coach Brad Larsen favors split-squad preseason games
Blue Jackets coach Brad Larsen said he likes the setup because it allows more players to get into the early preseason games.
This was the first of two preseason tilts Sunday between the Blue Jackets and Penguins. The second is scheduled for Sunday night at Nationwide Arena. The split-squad games are similar to what baseball teams with large rosters do during spring training.
“I wish the first four were split squads, to be honest with you,” said Larsen, who watched both games as a spectator. “We play eight (preseason games) all the time, so they tell me how many we’re playing and I build lineups. That’s it.”
Trent Vogelhuber and his Monsters staff coached the Blue Jackets in Pittsburgh. Larsen’s assistants handled the night game, led by associate coach Pascal Vincent.
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This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Columbus Blue Jackets Pittsburgh Penguins preseason opener