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PREVIEW: Blue Jackets face crucial game vs. Rangers

Columbus can clinch playoff spot with victory in New York

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

BLUE JACKETS (45-31-4) at RANGERS (31-36-13)
Friday, 7 p.m., Madison Square Garden, New York City (FOX Sports Ohio, CBJ appFOX Sports app, 97.1 The Fan)

If there's a key to the Blue Jackets' strong play during a recent five-game winning streak, it's something you might not have noticed at all as a fan. 

If you're watching hockey, the easiest way to watch it is to follow the puck. That's where the action is, after all. 

But head coach John Tortorella's assessment of what the Blue Jackets have done when playing well of late has been a simple one -- it's been about the team "playing the right way away from the puck." 

For it's what happens away from the puck that makes the difference, because soon enough, what happens away from the puck can become what is happening at the puck. If you're not doing the right things and putting yourself in the right position, it'll be a lot harder to have success when the puck actually gets there -- if it ever does. 

Two other keys for the Blue Jackets, who enter Friday night's game at the New York Rangers looking to bolster their Stanley Cup Playoff chances, have been "structure" and "playing in fives," in Tortorella's words. 

Ticket info for potential Stanley Cup Playoffs run

Taken as a full picture, it all makes sense. The more a team plays as a unit, the more success it's likely to have. When the Jackets are connected, as they were in that five-game winning streak, the right pass was obvious and easy to make, there was always help nearby, and it allowed for fast breakouts that led to offensive creativity. Defensively, the Jackets were always in position, defending in groups, and able to use their sticks to thwart attacks. 

"When the forwards are coming back, it makes our transition a lot easier," David Savard said, giving the defenseman's view of the whole thing. "It's hard for a team to get set up and get a good forecheck on us. I think when we're doing that, it makes our lives so much easier as defensemen, and we can actually get on transition and create more offense." 

From the forward's side, Oliver Bjorkstrand had a similar perspective. 

"It's just making sure you're in the right spots," Bjorkstrand said. "It's just being in the right areas. It just helps the team overall and helps you get the puck back. I think playing away from the puck is just playing hard." 

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There have been times, especially right after the trade deadline, where the Blue Jackets didn't look like they were quite playing as a unit whether it was because players were trying to build chemistry or because they were trying too hard to break out of offensive slumps. If you see a Blue Jackets defenseman with the puck in his own zone and no one to pass it too, odds are something is off.  

On the other hand, if the team is playing as a unit, breakouts are significantly easier because there are options and the passes are shorter and easier to complete.  

"If you're struggling offensively, there's always that fine line of anticipating, which is a skill, versus cheating, which is cheating," Tortorella said. "The more you cheat, the further and further you get away, and that's where the defensemen can't find you.  

"It kind of screws up your whole game because it's disjointed through the neutral zone. It doesn't allow you to attack with the proper speed coming across the blue line, and it turns into frustration, it turns into turnovers, and it turns into you playing in your own end zone a lot more than you'd like." 

The Blue Jackets did a good job of getting away from that kind of game during the five-game winning run in which it outscored teams 24-4, but against Boston, the early Bruins lead broke Columbus' patience. The Blue Jackets pushed to try to get goals back rather than playing the style that had worked so well, and Boston exploited the holes in the defense, racking up 12 scoring chances and two goals in the second period to put the game away. 

Tortorella and players said it was a lesson learned down the stretch. Now, Columbus needs to put that lesson in action with two key back-to-back games to finish the campaign and a playoff bid on the line. 

"I think Boston was checking so well, I think we played into their hands," Tortorella said. "We tried to make too many plays through them instead of around them, and that's what caused a lot of turnovers. We gave up a fluke goal, but I think we started OK, but the second period, we had no patience. We want to stay on the attack, we want to try to create some offense, but we turned the puck over and got caught out of position so many times. 

"A good, quick lesson for us as far as how we have to play, and hopefully we'll bring it into New York." 

Clinching Scenarios

With just two games left for the Blue Jackets, this part is easy. With a win, Columbus is playoff bound for a franchise-best third year in a row.

Even with a loss, the Blue Jackets would remain in the driver's seat for a postseason berth. Because Columbus has the tiebreaker over Montreal, even with zero points in Madison Square Garden, the Jackets would just have to match Montreal's points Saturday in the season finale to earn a playoff bid. Columbus visits Ottawa, while Montreal hosts Toronto.

The teams are tied with 94 points at the moment, three behind Carolina, which holds the first wild card spot and punched their postseason ticket Thursday with a win vs. New Jersey.

The Jackets will play either Tampa Bay or Washington if they qualify for the playoffs. With two wins down the stretch and a Carolina loss Saturday, Columbus will open with the defending Stanley Cup champion Capitals. Anything short of that and the Blue Jackets will trip to Presidents' Trophy winner Tampa Bay for the first round -- again, if they make it.

Know the Foe 

In seventh place in the Metropolitan Division, the Rangers and head coach David Quinn will not be playing postseason hockey, but Tortorella calls them one of the hardest working teams in the NHL. 

Unfortunately, that hasn't translated into results, as New York had a fast start but simply didn't have the depth to put together a successful campaign. The Rangers are 23rd in the league in scoring (2.69 goals per game), 24th in goals against (3.27), 17th in power play (19.4 percent) and a woeful 28th in penalty kill (77.7 percent).  

Just three players have more than 40 points, and one of those - Kevin Hayes (14-28-42) -- was sent out at the trade deadline along with Mats Zuccarello (11-26-37). Mika Zibanejad leads the team in all major scoring categories with a 30-42-72 line, while Chris Kreider is next with a 27-goal, 24-assist season for 51 points.  

In net, Henrik Lundqvist has started 52 games and went to the All-Star Game, but he's struggled at times while compiling a 18-23-10 record, 3.07 goals-against average and .907 save percentage. Alexander Georgiev is 13-13-3 with a 2.95 GAA and a .912 save percentage, and he will start Friday night vs. the Jackets.

3 Keys to the Game 

Early pressure: New York has little to play for but it's the home finale, which could lead to some energy for the Rangers. Columbus needs to be ready to play from the drop of the puck. 

Come together: Madison Square Garden is still a tough place to play for the opposition, but Columbus has thrived on the road. In a big game, the Jackets must play as a group. 

Play in fives: We wrote about it above, but it's the key to the game. What Columbus does away from the puck will be the key. 

Of Note 

Columbus has earned points in all three games against the Rangers thus far, including an overtime win Dec. 27 in the previous visit to Madison Square Garden. … The next Blue Jackets broke the franchise record for goals in a season Tuesday and are now at 248 goals on the year. Columbus has scored four or more goals in 37 of their 80 contests. … Boone Jenner is one point from 200 in his NHL career. … Cam Atkinson is one goal away from setting a new franchise record for the season with 42 tallies. … With 45 wins, Columbus has tied the second most victories in franchise history. The Jackets also had 45 wins last year after capturing 50 games two seasons ago. 

Blue Jackets Projected Lineup  

Subject to change  

Artemi Panarin - Pierre-Luc Dubois - Cam Atkinson  

Ryan Dzingel - Matt Duchene - Josh Anderson 

Alexandre Texier - Boone Jenner - Oliver Bjorkstrand 

Riley Nash - Brandon Dubinsky - Nick Foligno 

Zach Werenski - Seth Jones 

Markus Nutivaara - David Savard 

Dean Kukan - Scott Harrington 

Sergei Bobrovsky   

Joonas Korpisalo 

Scratched: Markus Hannikainen, Lukas Sedlak, Eric Robinson, Alexander Wennberg, Adam Clendening, Adam McQuaid, Andrew Peeke, Keith Kinakid, Elvis Merzlikins 

Roster Report: Columbus used the same lines during rushes in Thursday's practice as the team has over the past few games. McQuaid is not expected to make the trip with the team as he continues to rehab from an upper body injury. Texier, the 19-year-old French sensation who has five goals in seven games with Cleveland of the AHL, and Clendening were recalled Thursday. The plan is for Texier to enter the lineup for the Jackets.


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