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PREVIEW: Blue Jackets head into All-Star break by hosting Winnipeg

Columbus welcomes Jets to Nationwide Arena before nine days off

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com
BLUE JACKETS (26-16-8) vs. JETS (25-21-4) 

Wednesday, 7:30 p.m. ET, Nationwide Arena (FOX Sports OhioCBJ appFOX Sports app97.1 The Fan)  

BUY TICKETS (Third jersey game)

It was no secret head coach John Tortorella wasn't pleased with how the Blue Jackets played last week in wins over Carolina and New Jersey. 

He was willing to give his team a pass after the win over the Hurricanes despite the visitors' 73-31 edge in shot attempts, originally just calling it one of those games. But when the Blue Jackets were inundated by 41 shots on goal by the Devils, necessitating a standout performance by goaltender Elvis Merzlikins, the coach was less amused. 

"We opened up a trap door a game ago (vs. Carolina). We were falling into it even a little bit deeper this game," Tortorella said after the 5-0 win against the Devils, referring to his team's performance as a "no-show" when referring to the team's battle level. "Before we get stuffed in that thing and it shuts, we need to make sure we're honest on how we're playing." 

It appears the Blue Jackets heard the message. While the team wasn't totally on its game in New York a night later, there were numerous issues ironed out as the Blue Jackets stuck with it and earned a 2-1 win against the Rangers. The Sunday night win was highlighted by the first-ever NHL win by goalie Matiss Kivlenieks, two goals by Oliver Bjorkstrand in his return, and a tighter defensive performance by the CBJ.  

"We played better defensively," Tortorella said. "It was kind of a funny game. I hate using the word tired, but we just didn't look sharp. I don't think either team was sharp as far as energy, especially, but we hold them to 13 scoring chances. I thought it was a team that they have some firepower, they score some goals, and they have scored goals. 

"I thought we did a pretty good job defending. I didn't mind our game at all." 

Perhaps most impressive was how the Blue Jackets didn't let a 1-0 deficit that lasted for almost half the game deter them. The team just stuck with it and was able to get the win in the final minute, something that has impressed the head coach for most of the season. 

"It's been like that all year long," Tortorella said. "Even when we're healthy or have all the different people coming in here, it's one thing I respect about the team. We go about our business each day. We've had some long days, haven't played well in certain situations. Right now, we're trying to ride this wave as best we can. We'll have some struggles along the way again, but I just believe the team will handle themselves the right way." 

Speaking Tuesday after practice with reporters, Tortorella spoke often about how a team concept -- everyone working together and doing their role to a T -- is what has sparked the team through the 15-2-4 stretch that has put the Jackets back on the right side of the playoff line. 

That will continue to be important in the contest against Winnipeg on Wednesday that will lead the team into the All-Star break. 

"I think for the most part, we're sticking to our system and we're working hard," Gus Nyquist said. "We're doing the little things that need to be done to be successful out there. We're in a spot right now where we're looking up and trying to catch teams above us. There's a lot of hard work left, and we have a lot of games left so there's a lot to prove. 

"We're going in with a mind-set of winning a game here before the break. That's our main focus right now. We're taking it one day at a time. Today was a good practice, and we'll come ready to play tomorrow." 

Know the Foe   

The Jets came into the season coming off two straight playoff appearances and boasting a strong young core, with the team hoping to be Cup contenders despite having to totally rebuild its defense. 

As it turns out, while the defense has been a problem and the offense has been built on scoring from elite players, goaltender Connor Hellebuyck has kept the team afloat with one of the best performances in the league this year. The advanced stats show a team that has the worst differential of expected goals at 5-on-5 -- even worse than the Red Wings -- and regression might be catching up to the Jets, who have lost five of six and are 5-10-2 in their last 17 games after a Tuesday night loss at Carolina. 

Injuries have also popped up at the worst possible time as well, as not only are forwards Mark Letestu and Bryan Little out, defensemen Tucker Poolman, Carl Dahlstrom and Nathan Beaulieu are missing from a depleted D corps to begin with. 

The Jets still do boast some talented frontmen who are among the toughest in the league to shut down despite the team placing 20th in the NHL in scoring with 2.92 goals per game. Mark Schiefele is 12th in the league in scoring with a 23-31-54 line, while Kyle Connor's 24 goals are tied for ninth in the NHL. Connor also has 24 assists for 48 points, while Patrik Laine (17-28-45), Blake Wheeler (15-27-42) and Nikolaj Ehlers (18-20-38) are all highly skilled forwards. Columbus native Jack Roslovic adds a 9-10-19 line.

But outside of offseason acquisition Neal Pionk (4-27-31, plus-4) and holdover Josh Morrissey (4-21-25) the defensive corps has struggled after the departures of Dustin Byfuglien, Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot.  

Hellebuyck has been fantastic, though, posting a 21-16-4 record, 2.74 goals-against average and .917 save percentage while saving 12.53 goals above average. Backup Laurent Brossoit is 4-5-0 in 10 games with a 3.67 GAA and .885 save percentage and could play vs. the CBJ after Hellebuyck went in Carolina. 

3 Keys to the Game     

Take advantage of the power play: After a hot spurt, the CBJ power play has gone cold again, though the Jackets haven't had a ton of opportunities of late. But with Winnipeg 28th in the NHL in PK, this is a place to have an advantage, and the Jackets had a season-high three power-play goals the first time around against the Jets. 

Limit transition play: The top offensive players on the Jets can create, and that's especially true on the rush. Meanwhile, the Blue Jackets have excelled at keeping teams from earning odd-man rushes.  

One more effort: It might be easy to look ahead and think about the All-Star break, but the Blue Jackets need one more hard effort to finish the first half strong. 

Of Note

The Blue Jackets are riding a season-high-tying five-game win streak. … Columbus and Tampa Bay are the only teams to earn points in eight of the last 10 games. … Merzlikins has stopped 322 of 337 shots (.955 save percentage) in his past 10 starts while going 8-2-0. He has allowed just 15 goals in those 10 starts. He has three shutouts in his last four games. … Cam Atkinson has eight goals in his last 11 games, while Oliver Bjorkstrand has seven in his last five including a trio of two-goal games. … Alexander Wennberg has notched a 3-6-9 line in the past 11 games. … Vladislav Gavrikov is plus-18 since Dec. 5, best in the NHL. … Wennberg is one point from 200 in his CBJ career, while Atkinson is two goals from the 200 mark. … The Blue Jackets lost the first game between the teams Nov. 23 on the road by a 4-3 score. The team got power-play goals by Seth Jones, Pierre-Luc Dubois and Nyquist. … Columbus has lost three straight vs. the Jets.

Projected Lineup 

(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   

Elvis Merzlikins    

Matiss Kivlenieks   

Scratches: Sonny Milano, Adam Clendening, Joonas Korpisalo (injury)    

Roster Report: The Blue Jackets skated the same lines Tuesday during practice as the end of the win over the Rangers. No lineup changes are expected against the Jets other than Merzlikins moving back into the net.  

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