By: Josh Taylor

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PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — The Penguins have an important meeting with the Columbus Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena on Thursday night for multiple reasons.

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The more obvious is a possible playoff preview against a perennial Metropolitan Division rival. Another is how this matchup will affect the division standings. Then there is the Penguins’ first game facing defenseman Ian Cole, who played with the team during the previous seasons before being traded in late February.

The players used a few different adjectives to describe the opportunity to play against a friend who helped them win the Stanley Cup in back-to-back seasons.

“It’ll be a little weird,” said captain Sidney Crosby. “Knowing [Cole] and how competitive he is, he’ll be blocking shots and trying to do his regular thing out there. Now he’s a tough guy to compete against, and anybody who goes out there, you know when he’s on the ice.”

Goaltender Matt Murray echoed Crosby’s “weird” sentiment, but also added, “It’ll be cool to see him again, obviously. He’s a good friend and we’ve been through a lot together the last two years, so it’ll be good to see him again.”

One player who expects to see a lot of Cole is right winger Patric Hornqvist, who has played his entire NHL career in the area directly in front of the net, where Cole will be stationed to help out his goaltender.

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“It’ll be fun,” Hornqvist said. “He likes to block shots and be in their face in front of the goalie, so I’ll probably spend a lot of time with him. I can’t wait.”

Cole played 218 games for the Penguins after they acquired him in March 2015 from the St. Louis Blues for defenseman Robert Bortuzzo. Three days after the Penguins traded Cole to the Vegas Golden Knights in the deal that brought Derick Brassard to Pittsburgh, Cole was traded again to Columbus.

In the two full seasons he played in Pittsburgh, 2015-16 and 2016-17, Cole led the Penguins in blocked shots with 122 and 194, respectively. Both of those seasons ended with the Penguins as Stanley Cup champions.

“He was a pretty [well]-liked guy in the room, so I don’t think there will be any beef really at all out there,” said defenseman Brian Dumoulin of Cole. “But he’s a competitive guy and we have some competitive guys on our team, so it should be fun. I think it will just add to it a little bit more.”

The Penguins are currently in second place in the Metro Division with 96 points, with Columbus and the Philadelphia Flyers just two points behind with 94. The Penguins have played 80 games with two remaining, while the Flyers and Blue Jackets both have three in hand.

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Columbus and Philadelphia both have games scheduled Tuesday, along with the fifth-place New Jersey Devils (93 points). If Columbus beats the Detroit Red Wings and Philadephia beats the New York Islanders, then the Penguins, Blue Jackets and Flyers will be in a three-way tie for second place. In that scenario, Thursday’s winner would have a leg up on home-ice advantage in a first round playoff series.