BLUE JACKETS (25-16-8) at RANGERS (23-19-4)
Sunday, 7 p.m. ET, Madison Square Garden, New York City (FOX Sports Ohio, CBJ app, FOX Sports app, 97.1 The Fan)
You don't have to have a masters degree from the John Tortorella school of hockey coaching to know that the Blue Jackets haven't exactly played great the last two games.
While Columbus has won back-to-back games at home against division rivals Carolina and New Jersey, the Blue Jackets spent long stretches of each game defending with the puck in their own zone. In all, over those two games, opponents have 142 shot attempts toward the Blue Jackets goal while Columbus has just 79 of its own.
Goals determine games, not shot attempts, of course, but at the end of the day, the Blue Jackets would prefer to spend less time defending and more time attacking. It's the only way to continue building on what has been one of the hottest stretches in team history, a 14-2-4 run that has put the team right back into the thick of the playoff run.
"We talked in between the second and third period, and I think you have to be really careful," Tortorella said after the Jackets' 5-0 home win Saturday night vs. New Jersey. "I just wanted to be honest with them because we opened up a trap door a game ago (vs. Carolina). We were falling into it even a little bit deeper this game.
"Before we get stuffed in that thing and it shuts, we need to make sure we're honest on how we're playing. I just, it was embarrassing, and we're up 5-0 after two periods, so who is to figure this game? You're never going to be able to, but I'm concerned. As I've always said, I coach the team based on how they are playing. We sucked. Elvis was unbelievable. That's why we're leading 5-0."
Tortorella was his usual blunt self after the game against the Devils, but what he was saying wasn't wrong. The Blue Jackets getting hemmed into their defensive zone is no way to go through life as the team looks at its final 33 games in the playoff push.
It is a bit of a departure from early in the season when Columbus created chances and didn't score. While the Blue Jackets won just 11 of their first 29 games, they boasted some of the best underlying numbers in the league when it came to shot creation and shot quality. Those have been turned on their head a bit the past 10 games or so, yet Columbus keeps winning.
It's a credit to the play of someone like Merzlikins, who has been impressive in his 10 starts in net, as well as the confidence the team has in its ability to finish plays by scoring goals at the moment. But in the long run, the Blue Jackets do know they have to control the game better than they have been lately.
"I respect our team so much," Tortorella said. "I don't think it's gotten good to them. I just think they have forgotten the foundation of how hard we have to play. We have not played hard enough the last couple of games. We have not played north well enough the last couple of games. We certainly haven't won enough battles in the last couple of games, and we won two of them.
"I think our guys understand, and I feel very confident that we will rectify this."
Nick Foligno didn't hide from that reality, as the captain alternated between happiness for the win over the Devils postgame Saturday along with an understanding that the team has to do better starting Sunday night vs. the Rangers.
"I'm not gonna knock it because I'd rather be winning than losing," he said of the win over the Devils. "But it was a great chance for us to even catch ourselves in a situation where we could, where you're not reeling. We had to play a real solid, sharp third period, and I thought we did that for the most part.
"It was a good lesson for us. That's how we need to play. That's how we're going to be successful. That has to be a focus of ours going into a pretty tough building in Madison Square Garden."
Know the Foe
The Rangers have never quite gotten into gear this year but they've also kept the boat afloat, which is why they enter this game seventh in the Metropolitan Division but still on the fringes of the playoff race, with three games in hand on the Blue Jackets. New York has won four of five and is coming off a home-and-home sweep of the rival Islanders last week.
Offense is the Rangers' calling card, as the team is sixth in the league with 3.37 goals per game, but the team has been a mess defensively. New York allows 3.28 goals per game, seventh worst in the NHL, and cedes 2.72 expected goals 60 minutes at 5-on-5, worst in the league.
As most Blue Jackets fans know, the offseason acquisition of Artemi Panarin has been a boon to the team, as the former CBJ standout is tied for third in the NHL with 68 points. He has 26 goals to place seventh in the league, adds 42 assists to place sixth, and has a five-game point streak that includes four goals and nine assists for 13 points.
Linemate Ryan Strome has been one of the beneficiaries of playing with Panarin, as he's posted a 12-30-42 line. Mika Zibanejad is having an excellent season with 18 goals -- including seven power-play tallies -- and 19 assists for 37 points, while Tony DeAngelo is becoming one of the most dangerous blueliners in the league with a 12-25-37 output that places him sixth in the league among defensemen in points. Chris Kreider adds 16 goals among his 31 points.
Goaltenders Henrik Lundqvist and Alexandar Georgiev have borne the brunt of the Rangers' struggles defensively and have fared relatively well given the quality of shots they've faced, but the Rangers will return to rookie Igor Shesterkin for the start against Columbus.
The 24-year-old Russian has dominated in the KHL in past seasons playing at SKA St. Petersburg with Vladislav Gavrikov but is in his first North American season; he leads the AHL in goals-against average (1.93) and has two wins in two starts at the NHL level, allowing six goals with a .926 save percentage.
3 Keys to the Game
Limit Panarin: You're probably not going to totally stop him, but no one knows the skills of the talented winger better than the Blue Jackets. Limiting his production -- you can't give him open shots -- will be important.
Test Shesterkin: The youngster has looked good at every level but he's still making just his third NHL start; the Blue Jackets will want to test him early. He's given up a goal in the first 10 minutes in each of his two starts.
Forecheck and attack: After two games where the Blue Jackets have ceded the territorial advantage, doing the same in New York wouldn't be smart. Columbus just has to be on its game better from the opening whistle.
Merzlikins has stopped 322 of 337 shots (.955 save percentage) in the past 10 games while going 8-2-0. He has allowed just 15 goals in those 10 starts. … Cam Atkinson has eight goals in his last 10 games. … Alexander Wennberg has notched a 3-6-9 line in the past 10 games. … Gavrikov has an assist in three straight games and four of six. He is plus-17 since Dec. 5, best in the NHL. … Emil Bemstrom has a four-game point streak with two goals and two assists. ... The Jackets are 18-7-5 this year vs. Eastern foes and 6-0-2 in the last eight vs. Metropolitan Division opponents. … The Blue Jackets lost Dec. 5 vs. New York despite a 47-19 edge in shots on goal. Columbus had been unbeaten in the previous six against the Rangers (5-0-1) and has won the last three in MSG.
(Subject to change)
Gustav Nyquist - Pierre-Luc Dubois - Oliver Bjorkstrand
Emil Bemstrom - Alexander Wennberg - Cam Atkinson
Nathan Gerbe - Boone Jenner - Nick Foligno
Jakob Lilja - Riley Nash - Eric Robinson
Zach Werenski - Seth Jones
Vladislav Gavrikov - David Savard
Scott Harrington - Markus Nutivaara
Scratches: Sonny Milano, Adam Clendening, Joonas Korpisalo (injury)
Roster Report: Bjorkstrand should return to the lineup after being activated Sunday. Any further update to the lineup will come when Tortorella meets with the media ahead of the game around 5:30 p.m.