BLUE JACKETS (27-16-9) at CANADIENS (24-22-7)
Sunday, 2 p.m. ET, Centre Bell, Montreal (FOX Sports Ohio, CBJ app, FOX Sports app, 97.1 The Fan)
With 30 games to go heading into Sunday's game at Montreal, Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella has a unique perspective on where the team is in the NHL schedule.
Coming back from the All-Star winter break with a 2-1 overtime loss vs. Buffalo on Saturday was the first game of the second half, and the head coach says the line of demarcation with the break is even a bigger one than it seems.
"I think the season starts again now," he said. "Forget about all the things that you've done and how you've crawled back into it. Now you've put yourself in that spot, now our season starts here. This is the beginning of a season when February starts, and you have 30-plus games and teams get stingier, more physical, more of a grind. We have to be ready to take it one game at a time."
As Tortorella said, the game changes down the stretch, as things tighten up and teams start nearing playoff mode. Open ice becomes harder and harder to come by as the games get more important, and what might have worked in the first 50 games might not down the stretch.
"I think guys and teams start tightening down," defenseman Zach Werenski said. "Guys start stepping up. It becomes harder to score goals. Special teams become more important. It's like playoff hockey. Everyone is trying to get in, and there's 30 games left and everyone knows that it's toward the end of the season now so teams have to start winning."
Winning is what the Blue Jackets have done, as Columbus has won 16 of its past 23 games and has points in 21 of them. The Blue Jackets have claimed 37 of a possible 46 points in that span and currently occupy the top wild card spot in the Eastern Conference, just one point behind the New York Islanders for third place in the Metropolitan Division.
It will take a strong finish for the Blue Jackets to make the postseason for the fourth straight season, but if there's one thing Werenski has learned about the stretch run, it's the importance of getting results. That's something Columbus has done each of the past two seasons, using strong finishing kicks to earn wild card spots.
"Playoff teams win games," Werenski said of the home stretch. "That's the main thing. If you are going to make the playoffs, you have to win this time of year. There's 30 games left. You have to try to win 20 of them or something like that. It seems like all the playoff teams have started to win. Everyone is trying to gain separation, and we're in a position right now we should be looking at who is ahead of us instead of who is behind us and trying to catch them."
Know the Foe
A pair of long losing streaks -- an 0-6-2 stretch from Nov. 16 to Dec. 1 and an 0-7-1 run out of the Christmas break -- threatened to submarine Montreal's season, but with the playoffs appearing to be a long shot, the Habs have turned things around. Coming off a 4-0 blanking of Florida on Saturday, the Canadiens have won two in a row and six of the last eight.
That still leaves the team eight points behind a playoff spot and in fifth in the Atlantic Division, and the team could be seen as the very definition of average, both scoring and allowing 3.04 goals per game to place 17th in the league in offense and 16th in team defense.
Up front, the team has a deep attack, with eight players having scored double digits in goals, though no one has reached the 20-goal mark. Tomas Tatar has proved to be an excellent acquisition for the Habs, as he leads the team with 19 goals and 47 points. Phillip Danault is one of the best two-way players in the league with a 12-25-38 line, while Max Domi adds 12 goals and 34 points.
Brendan Gallagher is second on the team with 17 goals among his 34 points, while Shea Weber is having a great season at age 34 with 12 goals, 21 assists and a plus-7 rating. Nick Suzuki adds 10 goals and 32 points, while Joel Armia has 13 goals and Artturi Lehkonen 12. Ilya Kovalchuk has added a 5-4-9 line in 11 games since coming over from Los Angeles, while Jonathan Drouin could return after having played just 19 games this year with a wrist injury.
In net, Carey Price is still among the game's best and is coming off of the shutout of the Panthers, as he's started an NHL-leading 43 of the team's 53 games and is 22-17-4 with a 2.74 goals-against average and .911 save percentage. The team has cycled through three backups, including former CBJ goalie Keith Kinkaid, and Charlie Lindgren is the current No. 2. He has lost all three of his starts, giving up 10 goals and posting a save percentage of .892.
3 Keys to the Game
Manage emotions: Centre Bell is one of the most energetic buildings in the league, as the Canadiens always have great crowds. The Blue Jackets have to stay on an even keel throughout.
Elvis returns: It will be the first start for Elvis Merzlikins, who has a .951 save percentage in his last 11 games, since the break. Afternoon games test him because of the change in routines, but he should have memories of playing well in Centre Bell as he did so while losing in a shootout Nov. 12.
Find some goals: The Blue Jackets didn't make it hard enough on Buffalo's Carter Hutton while scoring just one goal Saturday. Columbus needs to get some more pucks to the blue and create traffic against the Habs.
The Blue Jackets have points in seven straight games. … Oliver Bjorkstrand has 10 goals during a seven-game point streak including a four two-goal games. … Vladislav Gavrikov is plus-17 since Dec. 5, while Pierre-Luc Dubois is plus-14 in that span with 21 points (5-16-21) in 25 games. … Alexander Wennberg is one point from 200 in his CBJ career, while Atkinson is two goals from the 200 mark. … Montreal beat the Blue Jackets by a 3-2 score in a shootout Nov. 12, while Columbus earned a matter of revenge one week later with a 5-2 victory in Columbus.
(Subject to change)
Gustav Nyquist - Pierre-Luc Dubois - Oliver Bjorkstrand
Nick Foligno - Alexander Wennberg - Cam Atkinson
Sonny Milano - Boone Jenner - Emil Bemstrom
Nathan Gerbe - Riley Nash - Eric Robinson
Zach Werenski - Seth Jones
Vladislav Gavrikov - David Savard
Scott Harrington - Markus Nutivaara
Scratches: Jakob Lilja, Andrew Peeke, Joonas Korpisalo (injury)
Roster Report: Merzlikins will go back into the net while Milano will return for the Blue Jackets.