BLUE JACKETS (30-17-10) at SABRES (25-24-8)
Thursday, 7 p.m. ET, KeyBank Center, Buffalo (FOX Sports Ohio, CBJ app, FOX Sports app, 97.1 The Fan)
The Blue Jackets find themselves in an interesting position going into Thursday night's clash with Buffalo.
For the first time in more than a month, Columbus has lost back-to-back games. A 2-1 setback Saturday vs. Colorado was followed by a 2-1 overtime loss Monday against Tampa Bay, the first consecutive losses for the Blue Jackets since falling in overtime in back-to-back games Dec. 27 and Dec. 29 vs. Washington and Chicago, respectively.
Of course, points are points, and the Blue Jackets have them in 25 of 28 games, a 19-3-6 run that has put the team right back in the Stanley Cup Playoffs race. (In fact, Columbus hasn't lost two straight games in regulation since early December.)
Video: Tortorella checks in with the media on Wednesday.
Yet there doesn't seem to be any reason to panic for the Blue Jackets, who know they played well the past two games against two of the hottest teams in the league in the Avs and Lightning. Facing two of the NHL's premier offenses, Columbus played strong defensive games and also threatened, posting a combined edge of 18-4 in those two games in high-danger chances at 5-on-5, per Natural Stat Trick.
The only thing missing? Actually putting the puck in the net more.
"I think one thing that can help, we can probably get a couple more goals," forward Gus Nyquist said. "Our power play has to be better. I think we should be able to execute better on that, but all in all, we've put in a lot of good minutes. We're just going to stick with it and keep doing the same things."
It's a message echoed by head coach John Tortorella, who has watched his team put together four straight performances in which they've had heavy edges in scoring chances and expected goal share. That the Blue Jackets have just five goals in that span speaks to needing to finish more, but odds are if the team keeps playing in a similar fashion, a lot of good things will happen.
"I liked a lot of things about our game (against Tampa Bay)," Tortorella said Tuesday. "I liked a lot of things against Colorado, but we have to try to find a way to score some goals and we have to find a way to get some sort of consistency with our power play.
"We had some good chances. I thought (Lightning goalie Curtis McElhinney) played really well last night; he always does. We had some good looks. So I am not upset about the game at all."
Of course, the biggest concern for the Blue Jackets - at least publicly - at the moment is the injury list, which showed signs of abating throughout January but is ballooning now again. The team said Wednesday that winger Cam Atkinson will miss two to three weeks with an ankle injury, while Seth Jones is out eight to 10 weeks with a fractured ankle suffered Saturday.
They join an injured list that currently includes forwards Brandon Dubinsky, Alexander Wennberg, Josh Anderson and Alexandre Texier as well as defensemen Ryan Murray and Dean Kukan, plus goalie Joonas Korpisalo.
As of Monday night's game, the Blue Jackets have 300 man-games lost to injury, an average of more than five players out per game. Yet don't expect Tortorella to come crying, as his message has been the same with his team all year.
"We don't even say, 'Next man up,'" he said. "We don't even talk about it. We just play. We don't talk in those clichés -- 'Next man up' -- we go play. First thing in the morning when I come in, I put the lineup on the board. That's who's playing. That's how we go about our business."
Know the Foe
These teams will be no strangers, as they met in the Blue Jackets' first game after the All-Star break just 12 days ago in Buffalo. The Sabres took a 2-1 victory in overtime, which is one of the team's nine wins in its last 24 games (9-13-2). In all, Buffalo has won just 17 of its last 47 games since an 8-1-1 start, and this will be the ninth straight season without postseason hockey on the shores of Lake Erie.
Simply put, the team has struggled to put depth around Jack Eichel, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2015 draft who has become one of the NHL's top players. The 23-year-old has seemingly cemented himself as one of the game's top players this season with 31 goals and 70 points, which are seventh and sixth in the league, respectively.
The next three top scorers are 24 or younger, but consistency has been difficult to find out of the rest of the group. Sam Reinhart has an 21-26-47 line while Victor Olofsson has 16 goals - including nine on the power play - and 35 points but has been out with an ankle injury; he could return Thursday night against the CBJ.
Rasmus Dahlin, the 19-year-old defenseman who was the No. 1 overall pick in 2018, has been solid with a 4-28-32 line, but the scoring punch drops off from there, one reason the Sabres are 21st in the NHL in scoring with 2.83 goals per game. Coming off a 40-goal season, Jeff Skinner has just 11 goals and 19 points this season, while veteran Kyle Okposo has been banged up and has just 12 points in 40 games.
The team is also 19th in the league in defense, ceding 3.09 goals per game, and a woeful penalty kill (27th in the NHL, 74.8 percent) hasn't helped. Top goalie Linus Ullmark (16-14-3) is out with injury, with Carter Hutton taking over as the No. 1. The former Toledo Walleye netminder is 9-9-4 with a 3.18 goals-against average and .896 save percentage. Rookie Jonas Johansson, a 24-year-old Swede who had a 2.19 GAA in the AHL with Rochester, has a 2.78 GAA and .889 save percentage in three games.
3 Keys to the Game
Find some goals: The Sabres have given up 17 tallies in five games since facing Columbus on Feb. 1, an average of 3.40 per contest. While Columbus has been struggling scoring, this is a foe that can give them up.
Next men up: Tortorella says the Blue Jackets don't talk about the injuries, but it's another chance for such players in new roles like Liam Foudy, Kevin Stenlund, Markus Nutivaara and Andrew Peeke to shine again after each turned in solid outings vs. Tampa.
Take care of business: The Blue Jackets need wins against teams like the Sabres, who are largely out of the postseason race, to keep pace in the playoff hunt. There cannot be a letdown.
The Blue Jackets have points in 19 consecutive games vs. Eastern Conference foes (14-0-5). The streak is tied for the fifth longest intra-conference point streak in a single season in the NHL since 1974-75. … The game begins a stretch of eight games in 13 days. … Elvis Merzlikins has an 8-1-1 record in his last 10 starts with just 12 goals allowed and a .959 save percentage. He leads the league with five shutouts, all in the last 10 games. … Oliver Bjorkstrand snapped a four-game streak without a goal Tuesday and has 11-3-14 in his last 12 games. … Pierre-Luc Dubois has a 7-18-25 line in his last 26 games. … Nyquist is two assists from 200 in his career. … Zach Werenski leads all NHL defensemen with a CBJ-record 17 goals this season. ... The Blue Jackets' penalty kill is 23-for-24 over the last 12 games. … Columbus has points in seven of the last nine games with Buffalo (6-2-1).
(Subject to change)
Nick Foligno - Pierre-Luc Dubois - Oliver Bjorkstrand
Gus Nyquist - Boone Jenner - Liam Foudy
Nathan Gerbe - Riley Nash - Eric Robinson
Sonny Milano - Kevin Stenlund - Emil Bemstrom
Zach Werenski - Markus Nutivaara
Vladislav Gavrikov - David Savard
Scott Harrington - Andrew Peeke
Scratches: Cam Atkinson (injury), Gabriel Carlsson, Joonas Korpisalo (injury)
Roster Report: Atkinson will be two to three weeks with a sprained ankle, leading to Wednesday's recall of Foudy, who made his NHL debut Monday vs. Tampa Bay. He will play again before being returned to OHL London on Friday.