BLUE JACKETS (27-16-8) at SABRES (22-22-7)
Saturday, 1 p.m. ET, KeyBank Center, Buffalo (FOX Sports Ohio, CBJ app, FOX Sports app, CD 102.5 FM )
The first half of the NHL season couldn't have ended better for the Blue Jackets.
Columbus went into the All-Star break absolutely on fire, with a 16-2-4 record over its last 22 games that was the best in the National Hockey League.
So how does John Tortorella think he can allow his team to recapture the magic after nine days without a game?
Simply put, he's not thinking that way.
"I don't even think about it anymore," he said. "Early in my career, I'd worry about where the team was before break, is it the right time, and overthink it. There's nothing you can do about it, especially now with the new schedule that has come with the past few years and the amount of days you do get off.
"No, you trust your players. We give them a program. We don't hold their hands to follow it. If you have the right people in the room, they follow and they do their business."
The early returns, before the Blue Jackets have played a game on the back side of the break, are strong. Going into Saturday's matinee at Buffalo, Tortorella put his team through a pair of practices about 45 minutes in length on Thursday and Friday, and he seemed pleased with the effort and camaraderie he saw out of his team in those two sessions.
"I like the attitude," he said. "I like seeing guys - they are hockey players. They love being on the ice together. I felt that (Thursday). I felt it even more (Friday). Now they're gonna travel together and get back at it here. I think we're in a good place mentally as far as getting ready to play, but it's going to be quick for us. When we play our first game, it's going to be quick because this team has played before (coming out of the break). We just have to take it each day at a time."
The final 31 games will be a sprint, though, with Columbus playing those contests in a 63-day stretch, which essentially means a game every other day for the final two months.
The hot stretch heading into the break has put the Jackets back into the heart of the playoff race. Catching the New York Islanders for third in the Metro is on the table with the Isles just a point ahead, but Carolina and Philadelphia are also right in the thick of the race, while Toronto and Florida are also right in the middle of the wild card race as well.
The stretch run to the postseason begins now, and the Blue Jackets are used to playing meaningful games over the season's final months. To clinch a fourth straight postseason berth, Columbus will have to pick up right where it left off before the break.
"Every game is important, but obviously at this time you start looking at the standings and where you are, and it's pretty obvious now that it's close," winger Oliver Bjorkstrand said. "Every game is going to be super important, and we just have to push and keep pushing and trying to get the wins."
Know the Foe
On paper, these are teams going in opposite directions. While Columbus has points in 22 of its last 24 games, Buffalo has fallen to sixth in the Atlantic Division with three straight losses as well as just six wins in the last 18 games.
For the second year in a row, a strong start could not be sustained for the Sabres, who are also dealing with a bit of discontent after a fan's radio rant about the state of the franchise -- which hasn't made it to the Stanley Cup Playoffs since 2011 -- went viral.
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 could be on a 50-goal pace this year with 30 goals and 64 points, which are fourth and eighth 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 18-24-42 line while Victor Olofsson has 16 goals - including nine on the power play - and 35 points. Rasmus Dahlin, the 19-year-old defenseman who was the No. 1 overall pick in 2018, has been solid with a 3-26-29 line, but the scoring punch drops off from there, one reason the Sabres went into Friday's action 20th in the NHL in scoring with 2.88 goals per game. Coming off a 40-goal season, Jeff Skinner has just 11 goals and 19 points this season.
The team is also 22nd in the league in defense, ceding 3.12 goals per game, and a woeful penalty kill (28th in the NHL, 74.2 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 6-8-4 with a 3.24 goals-against average and .894 save percentage. Rookie Jonas Johansson, a 24-year-old Swede who had a 2.19 GAA in the AHL with Rochester, has been promoted to be the backup but is yet to see NHL action.
3 Keys to the Game
Start fast: Buffalo's losing skid has morale low, with the sense the Sabres are at a pivotal point if they want to have any chance to save their season. Columbus can keep that vibe going if the Jackets can find an early lead.
Bring energy: Matinee starts are always tricky, but coming off nine days off, the Blue Jackets will hope to have some pent-up energy to expend.
Big guns: Cam Atkinson and Oliver Bjorkstrand have been excellent additions to the lineup since coming back from injury. Getting tallies from top players will continue to be crucial down the stretch.
The Blue Jackets are riding a season-highix-game win streak. … Columbus joins Tampa Bay, Florida and Edmonton as the only teams to earn points in eight of the last 10 games. … Atkinson has eight goals in his last 12 games, while Bjorkstrand has nine in his last six including a four two-goal games. … Vladislav Gavrikov is plus-18 since Dec. 5, best in the NHL, while Pierre-Luc Dubois is plus-14 in that span with 20 points in 24 games. … Alexander Wennberg is one point from 200 in his CBJ career, while Atkinson is two goals from the 200 mark. … Columbus won the first matchup between the teams on Oct. 7, a 4-3 overtime victory for the Blue Jackets. Bjorkstrand, Atkinson and Nick Foligno scored before Alexandre Texier won the game in overtime. It was just the Jackets' third game of the season.
(Subject to change)
Nick Foligno - Pierre-Luc Dubois - Oliver Bjorkstrand
Gustav Nyquist - Alexander Wennberg - Cam Atkinson
Nathan Gerbe - Boone Jenner - Emil Bemstrom
Jakob Lilja - Riley Nash - Eric Robinson
Zach Werenski - Seth Jones
Vladislav Gavrikov - David Savard
Scott Harrington - Markus Nutivaara
Scratches: Sonny Milano, Andrew Peeke, Joonas Korpisalo (injury)
Roster Report: The Blue Jackets have not made any roster moves since the end of the first half, but Josh Anderson -- out since Dec. 14 with an upper-body injury -- did travel with the team after returning to practice Thursday. Kivlenieks was the first goalie off the ice after Friday's practice and could get the start.