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PREVIEW: Blue Jackets complete West Coast swing in Las Vegas

Columbus looks to play a more consistent game against Golden Knights

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com
BLUE JACKETS (21-16-8) at GOLDEN KNIGHTS (24-17-6)  

Saturday, 10 p.m. ET, T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas (FOX Sports OhioCBJ appFOX Sports app97.1 The Fan

When the Blue Jackets locker room was opened after the team's loss Thursday to San Jose, there was a unified front in what had gone wrong for the team in the 3-1 setback. 

"The big part of the night was we didn't sustain a forecheck until the third, the end of the game," captain Nick Foligno said. "They got to play to their strengths, which is spreading us out. … We weren't quite in the spots we needed to be in and not as clean as we needed to be and didn't get our forecheck going, so we allowed them to play that three-quarter ice game." 

"We couldn't really sustain a forecheck or any pressure, really," Seth Jones said next. "Only in short spurts, but nothing that was nearly consistent enough throughout the game to make their lives difficult." 

"I just don't think we made it hard enough for them on their back end with our forechecking," head coach John Tortorella later added. "I don't think we had enough sustained forechecking. Still had chances to score goals, but I don't think we sustained enough forechecking." 

By now, you've probably spotted the key word. For the Blue Jackets to succeed, Tortorella has brought up repeatedly as the season has gone on, the must be hard to play against. And one of the key pieces of that is the forecheck. 

Not only does that allow the Blue Jackets to keep the puck in the offensive zone and wear down opposing teams while forcing turnovers, it is key because it keeps teams from coming up the ice with speed. 

Yet in the last few games, that's been an issue for the Blue Jackets, who have spent more time in their defensive end than they'd like despite the earlier wins over the Kings and Ducks. All three opponents were able to create scoring chances both in transition and by using their forecheck to pin Columbus in its own end. 

That's where the Blue Jackets would like to see improvement as they hit Vegas for a Saturday night game to finish the four-game road swing.  

"I don't think our game has been consistent the past few games," Tortorella said. "I think the past three, four games, I think it's been inconsistent. I don't think we sustained enough forechecking." 

Know the Foe 

It's yet another season where Vegas looks like a playoff team, as the Golden Knights enter second in the Pacific Division, but it's not all been candy and roses for Gerard Gallant's team, which has lost two in a row to follow a four-game win streak.  

The team has actually been outscored at 5-on-5, though the underlying numbers show one of the best teams in the league when it comes to possession and shot quality. In fact, at 5-on-5 this year, the Golden Knights lead the NHL in expected goals percentage, according to Natural Stat Trick. Yet overall, the Knights are 13th in goal scoring (3.11 per game) and 14th in goals allowed (3.02 per game).  

Depth in scoring is key for the Golden Knights, as six players have reached double digits in goals and five have at least 30 points. Max Pacioretty leads the way with 20 goals and 25 points followed by Mark Stone, the former Ottawa Senator who has continued to be one of the game's top players with a 16-27-43 line.  

Reilly Smith adds 18 goals and 18 assists for 36 points, while former Blue Jackets William Karlsson (10-23-33) and Jonathan Marchessault (15-16-31) continue to be consistent scorers, though Marchessault is banged up and hasn't played yet in the new year. Shea Theodore is the top defenseman with a 6-20-26 line, while Paul Stastny adds 12 goals.  

In net, Marc-Andre Fleury has continued to be the workhorse for the Golden Knights with an 18-9-3 record, 2.84 goals-against average and .908 save percentage. Malcolm Subban is 6-7-3 with a 3.04 GAA and .898 save percentage. 

3 Keys to the Game   

Start better: Both teams should be itching for a strong start as the last three games have saw each team put together slow first periods. Vegas has been outscored 9-0 in the first the last three games and has given up 15 first-period goals in its six-game homestand. 

Ride the wave: A game in Vegas is unlike any place in the NHL, as there's an energy in the place that borders on the manic. Columbus rode it a year ago; can they do the same this year? 

A physical game: Vegas leads the NHL with 858 hits on the season and has three guys in the top 10 of the NHL in the stat, including leader Ryan Reaves (198). Columbus will have to handle that part of the contest.  

Of Note  

Elvis Merzlikins has stopped 188 of 201 shots (.935 save percentage) in the past six games, going 4-2-0. … Werenski has 12-10-22 with a plus-11 rating in his last 22 games as well as nine goals in 12 games since returning from injury. … Pierre-Luc Dubois has a 4-11-15 line in his last 14 games and is plus-7, while Gus Nyquist has a 6-12-18 line in 22 road games this year. … Columbus ends a stretch of five games in a row against Western Conference foes. … Columbus is 6-1-3 in its last 10 road games. … The Blue Jackets had won three in a row vs. Vegas before a 2-1 loss to the Golden Knights on Nov. 5. Columbus swept the two-game season series a year ago.  

Projected Lineup  

(Subject to change)   

Gustav Nyquist - Pierre-Luc Dubois - Nathan Gerbe 

Sonny Milano - Boone Jenner - Nick Foligno 

Emil Bemstrom - Alexander Wennberg - Kevin Stenlund 

Jakob Lilja - Riley Nash - Eric Robinson 

Zach Werenski - Seth Jones   

Vladislav Gavrikov - David Savard    

Scott Harrington - Markus Nutivaara 

Elvis Merzlikins  

Matiss Kivlenieks  

Scratches: Ryan MacInnis, Gabriel Carlsson, Joonas Korpisalo (injury)  

Roster Report: It remains to be seen if Atkinson will be able to return; a roster move will have to be made to get him back on the active roster. Any lineup changes will be confirmed by Tortorella at a morning presser. 

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