BLUE JACKETS (32-22-15) at CANUCKS (36-24-8)
Sunday, 10 p.m. ET, Rogers Arena, Vancouver (FOX Sports Ohio, CBJ app, FOX Sports app, 97.1 The Fan)
Before Saturday night's game in Edmonton, Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella was asked about how his team had won just two of its previous 13 games yet still was holding a wild card spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Was the head coach scoreboard watching, and had he noticed a lot of results had gone his team's way in recent weeks, keeping some of the team's postseason rivals from pulling away?
Tortorella is often adamant about how he focuses on his team and his team only, but he did have to admit he had noticed that fact.
"I am looking at standings more this year than I have prior," he said. "I look at our record and some of those overtime losses -- we've had 15. Maybe if you turn a few of those around, where would we be? We are looking above us, too. We're looking behind us, but we're looking above us, how close we can be there.
"But as far as worrying about it, we have no control of other teams' play and their results. We're just trying to be as consistent as we can be with our club."
Saturday, then, was a day of mixed results for his team. Two squads chasing the Blue Jackets in close proximity -- Carolina and the New York Islanders -- played one of those three-point games that frustrate the other teams in the playoff race, with the Hurricanes earning the overtime win. Another team behind the Blue Jackets, the New York Rangers, dropped a contest at New Jersey and did not gain any ground.
And the Blue Jackets' play was also a story of pluses and minuses. On the plus side, Columbus played a solid all-around game in Edmonton and peppered Oilers goalie Mikko Koskinen for three periods. The bad news is Koskinen was equal to the task, stopping 46 of 47 shots to backstop the Oilers to a 4-1 win that was in doubt until the home team pulled away in the last five minutes.
The combined results on a busy day of NHL hockey left Columbus in the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference, tied in points with the Islanders, two ahead of the Hurricanes and three clear of the Rangers and Florida, who all have games in hand.
So what's the reaction after such an up-and-down day?
"Just have to keep going," Boone Jenner said. "We had some good minutes there. We just weren't able to get one past (Koskinen). We're on to the next one now. We take the good out of it and keep going the right direction here."
Next up is a chance to salvage the road trip in Vancouver, where Columbus is 4-0-1 in its last five trips. It's exactly what the Blue Jackets were able to do a year ago, responding from a pair of losses in Alberta to drub the Canucks and kick-start a hot finish to the campaign that clinched a playoff bid.
"We're going to keep going. That's no quit in here. We're going to keep doing the same things," Gus Nyquist said. "That's all our focus is on right now is getting two points in Vancouver and go home with three out of six."
Know the Foe
Vancouver is certainly not the Blue Jackets when it comes to injuries, but the Canucks will enter the game missing a number of key contributors.
Forwards Brock Boeser, Michael Ferland, Josh Leivo and Jay Beagle all have been out of late, as has Vezina-contending goalie Jacob Markstrom. That has played into a bit of a slump for Vancouver, as the Canucks are 5-8-2 in their last 15 games and snapped a four-game losing streak Friday with a victory over Colorado. Included in that skid was last Sunday's loss at Columbus in which the Canucks blew a 3-1 lead in the final eight minutes.
That leaves the Canucks in a heated battle for playoff positioning in a tight Western Conference. The strengths of the team include the offense, which is eighth in the NHL with 3.27 goals per game and scores at 24.2 percent on the power play, fourth in the league. The loss of Markstrom has been huge, as the Canucks -- 20th overall in the league with 3.10 goals allowed per game -- have given up 4.0 goals per game in the last nine.
The offseason acquisition of Ohio native J.T. Miller was panned by some but it's proved to be a huge deal for the Canucks, as the 26-year-old has been a point-per-game player with 27 goals and 44 assists for 71 points.
After that, two youngsters have been huge parts of the equation and might have the Canucks set up for years to come. Last season's Calder Trophy winner, Elias Pettersson, is following up a great rookie campaign with a solid sophomore season with a 26-38-64 line. Meanwhile, 20-year-old rookie Quinn Hughes might be in line for the Calder this year with eight goals and 44 assists to lead all NHL rookies with 52 points.
Captain Bo Horvat adds a 21-31-52 line while Tanner Pearson has 21 goals and Jake Virtanen 18. The team also misses Boeser and his 16 goals and 45 points in 56 games.
In net, Markstrom is having a Vezina-quality season a 2.75 goals-against average and .918 save percentage, but his potential return to the ice this year is clouded in mystery. Thatcher Demko has played in 25 games and is 12-9-2 with a 3.07 GAA and .904 save percentage, while Louis Domingue has been acquired from New Jersey to serve as the backup.
3 Keys to the Game
Battle the top line: Miller and Pettersson have proved to be a tough duo to handle, with each posting three points in the game last week vs. Columbus. Not allowing transition chances will be huge.
Keep going: The famed Jarmo Kekalainen quote from the Out Of Our Blue campaign applies here, as both Jenner and Nyquist said above. The Blue Jackets have played back-to-back solid games vs. Edmonton and Calgary but lost both. They just have to stick to the plan and results should follow.
Release some frustration: The Blue Jackets turned their season around in Vancouver last year, kicking off a dramatic, fantastic finish. They can do the same thing this time around.
Columbus has points in 32 of 40 games (21-8-11). … The team's 15 overtime losses lead the NHL. … Werenski leads all NHL defensemen with a CBJ-record 20 goals from the blue line this season. He is the first-ever Blue Jacket to reach 20 goals in a season and just the second blueliner in the league to hit the milestone the past three seasons (Toronto's Morgan Rielly, 20 last year). … Werenski is also set to play in his 300th career game. ... Nyquist has goals in three straight. … Alexander Wennberg earned his 200th career point with an assist Saturday night. … The Blue Jackets are in the midst of a stretch of six straight games vs. Western Conference foes. … The Blue Jackets are a combined 11-4-2 on Western Canada trips since 2014-15.
(Subject to change)
Gustav Nyquist - Boone Jenner - Nick Foligno
Alexander Wennberg - Pierre-Luc Dubois - Emil Bemstrom
Kevin Stenlund - Riley Nash - Eric Robinson
Jakob Lilja - Devin Shore - Stefan Matteau
Vladislav Gavrikov - David Savard
Zach Werenski - Markus Nutivaara
Scott Harrington - Andrew Peeke
Scratches: Oliver Bjorkstrand (injury), Nathan Gerbe (injury), Ryan MacInnis, Ryan Murray (injury), Gabriel Carlsson
Roster Report: Merzlikins could return to the ice for the Blue Jackets after missing around two weeks with an upper-body injury. He served as the backup to Korpisalo in Saturday night's game in Edmonton. Any changes will be known for sure after Tortorella's pregame address to the media.