BLUE JACKETS (18-14-8) vs. BRUINS (24-7-10)
Thursday, 7 p.m. ET, TD Garden, Boston (FOX Sports Ohio, CBJ app, FOX Sports app, 97.1 The Fan)
As 2020 begins, it's fair to say no one with 20/20 vision could have expected what the Blue Jackets have done over the past 11 games.
Columbus' point streak has reached the 11-game mark (7-0-4), making the fourth-longest in franchise history, despite also seeing players leave with injuries at nearly the same pace as the team has been racking up results.
Through it all, the team has gutted through all the adversity, with Tuesday night being perhaps the biggest example of that. In front of a festive New Year's Eve crowd but missing the goaltender that had been the backbone of the recent run, Columbus came out and delivered a 4-1 win over a red-hot Florida team.
Between Zach Werenski's hat trick and goalie Elvis Merzlikins' first career win, Blue Jackets fans left Nationwide Arena on cloud nine, but as head coach John Tortorella came into his postgame press conference, he wasn't blowing a New Year's streamer or setting off a novelty confetti gun.
As good as the win felt, it was just one of the many the team will need as to fight back into the race in the Eastern Conference.
Yet he also admitted he's impressed with what the team has been able to do even in the face of injuries that likely would have crippled most other teams.
"It's a belief," he said when asked about his team's resilience. "When you have this type of situation, coaches always say we have to play as a team. Coaches are always saying that, and we are doing that. We're finding our way. It was ugly at times … but everybody is chipping in, everybody is involved in it, whether it be on the score sheet or just doing the little things. It's important playing as a team."
The road gets no easier right now for Columbus, which heads Thursday to take on a Boston team that is tied for second in the NHL in points.
Another injury loss will have to be overcome, as well, as rookie Alexandre Texier was placed on injured reserve Wednesday. He's the 10th player to go down, more than half a roster, but the Blue Jackets are just focusing on doing what they can to keep things rolling.
"It's just that next man up mentality," defenseman Zach Werenski said. "Whoever is over the boards next, go out there and do your job."
Know the Foe
Since the two teams met in last year's Eastern Conference semifinals, Boston and Columbus have had opposite results on the ice.
While the Blue Jackets struggled to get going with an 11-14-4 mark in the first 29 games, Boston was a house afire to begin the season, getting off to a 20-3-5 start. Since then, the Blue Jackets are the team that has heated up, while the Bruins have a 4-4-5 record in the last 13 games. The team does have points in seven of eight, though, and has won three of its last four.
It's also a banged-up team, though not on the level of the injuries that have swept through Columbus. Defensemen Torey Krug, Charlie McAvoy, Kevan Miller and Connor Clifton all missed the last game, while forward David Krejci also has been out.
Defense has been key to the Bruins' season, as Boston leads the NHL with just 2.42 goals allowed per game, as well as boasting the league's second-best penalty kill (85.3 percent) and just 64 goals allowed in 41 games at 5-on-5 (for comparison, the Blue Jackets are just behind with 69 allowed in 40 games).
A main reason is the goaltending, as both Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak have been elite, and each has saved more than 10 goals against according to GSAA. Rask is second in the league in goals-against average among goalies with at least 20 starts (2.31) while boasting a 15-4-5 record and .923 save percentage. Halak is 9-3-5 with a 2.20 GAA and .930 save percentage.
Up front, the team is eighth in the NHL in scoring (3.37 goals per game) thanks largely to a dominant first line of David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron. Pastrnak leads the NHL with 29 goals among his 59 points, a mark that ties him for third in the NHL with Marchand, who has a 20-39-59 line and is second in the NHL in assists. Bergeron adds a 17-18-35 line.
Krejci (8-20-28) and Krug (5-21-26) have combined for 54 points, so their health could be key, as Jake DeBrusk is next on the squad with 11 goals and nine assists for 20 points.
Central Ohio native Sean Kuraly has a 3-12-15 line in 41 games while former CBJ defenseman John Moore has played in 10 games.
3 Keys to the Game
Stay out of the box: Again, it's something we say often, but Boston's power play is one of the major reasons the team is off to such a hot start. It checks in at 26.9 percent, third in the NHL, and has pumped in 36 goals in 41 games.
Grind for goals: The Bruins are stingy and goals don't come easy, so Columbus has to keep up the same get it to the blue style that has resulted in scoring of late.
Best on best: The Blue Jackets likely will try to get Werenski and Seth Jones on the Bruins' top line, but that will be easier said than done with Boston having the last change. The battle of matchups will be fun to watch.
Vladislav Gavrikov is plus-12 in his last 13 games. … Pierre-Luc Dubois has a 3-6-9 line in his last nine contests, while Werenski has 8-9-17 in his last 17 games. Werenski also has five goals in seven games since returning from injury. … It's been an even series of late with the Bruins, with Columbus 5-4-1 in the last 10 regular-season matchups. … The Blue Jackets went 1-1-1 vs. Boston a year ago, with Werenski posting a 1-3-4 line and Boone Jenner netting a hat trick in a 7-4 CBJ win March 12.
(Subject to change)
Gustav Nyquist - Boone Jenner - Nick Foligno
Nathan Gerbe - Pierre-Luc Dubois - Kevin Stenlund
Sonny Milano - Alexander Wennberg - Eric Robinson
Ryan MacInnis - Riley Nash - Jakob Lilja
Zach Werenski - Seth Jones
Vladislav Gavrikov - David Savard
Scott Harrington - Dean Kukan
Scratches: Justin Scott, Gabriel Carlsson, Joonas Korpisalo (injury)
Roster Report: Tortorella said Milano returns tonight, the first bit of good injury news in a while for the Blue Jackets. He goes in for the injured Texier. Harrington also returns to the lineup in place of Carlsson.