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PREVIEW: Blue Jackets begin big weekend by hosting Detroit

Columbus has points in nine straight games heading into Friday night game

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com
BLUE JACKETS (29-16-9) vs. RED WINGS (13-38-4)  

Friday, 7 p.m. ET, Nationwide Arena (FOX Sports OhioCBJ appFOX Sports app97.1 The Fan

BUY TICKETS (Hockey is for Everyone Night presented by VORYS; Runner's buff giveaway for first 10,000 fans)

Right now, for the Blue Jackets, it's a tale of two special teams units going into tonight's game against Detroit in Nationwide Arena. 

Columbus has won 18 of its last 25 games, earning 41 points in that span, and a big reason has been the team's penalty kill. The Blue Jackets have killed 86.7 percent of opponents' penalties in that span, good for third in the league. Perhaps even more impressive has been the team discipline, as the Blue Jackets have had to kill just 60 penalties, an average of 2.4 per game. In the last seven games, Columbus has been shorthanded just 10 times. 

On the other side of the coin is the team's power play. In that 25-game stretch, the Blue Jackets 13.8 percent of power plays, second worst in the NHL behind only the Red Wings team they will see Friday night. 

So what gives? Starting with the unit that's excelling, head coach John Tortorella sees a PK group that knows the importance of its role on the team.  

"I think our penalty killing offsets (the power play) because our penalty killing has just kept on climbing here and been more consistent," he said. "Until we get that power play going, we have to make sure we stay on top of it on the other end. … It's the importance of it, too, when we have a power play that isn't scoring, they know the importance of trying to get it on the other side of the ledger straightened out." 

The team discipline has been strong, and that has allowed the Blue Jackets to use their top penalty killers liberally since they haven't had to be on the ice a ton to complete kills. Tortorella also pointed to two other factors -- the impressive coaching work of Brad Shaw and excellent goaltending of late. 

It's the second year in a row the PK has gotten better and better as the season went on, as Columbus ended up tying for the top kill in the NHL a year ago. In each of the last two wins against Montreal and Florida, which both have excellent power plays, the Blue Jackets made key kills look easy in crucial situations. 

"I just think it's a comfort of just understanding the scheme," Tortorella said. "I think Brad Shaw has done a terrific job. I know when he first started, I think he has simplified his explanation of things. I think the guys understand it. I think once you start getting into a little bit of a run as you go from game to game, you take a pride in it and you want to keep going with it." 

As for the power play, there have been times it has looked better than the raw numbers -- the team had two pretty strong power plays Tuesday night vs. The Panthers but didn't score on either -- but there's also no denying it could be better. 

Since a stretch in November in which Columbus went 9-for-23 (39.1 percent) on the power play over a seven-game period, the Blue Jackets have scored on 9 of 70 chances (12.9 percent).  

"We've had a lot of guys that were on the power play hurt, yeah, but (Kevin Stenlund) came in and did a good job," Tortorella said. "We've given (Emil Bemstrom) a little bit more of a look. Now Sonny (Milano) is on it with (Alexander Wennberg) out, we put Sonny on it, I thought he made a couple of good plays Tuesday night. 

"You guys have a right to ask about it because we just haven't scored, but we just gotta keep on trying to find our way with it." 

Know the Foe 

Simply put, Detroit is having one of the worst seasons in recent memory, with the Wings -- who had lost nine in a row before last night's shootout win vs. Buffalo -- threatening to have the fewest wins since the NHL's realignment in 2013-14.  

Since then, just six teams have won fewer than 25 games in a season, with Buffalo's 21 victories in 2014 serving as the lowest total on the books. In their last 27 games, the Red Wings will have to win eight games to tie that mark and nine to pass it. 

The Wings have come upon that rightly, placing last in the NHL in scoring -- at 2.06 goals per game, Detroit is almost half a goal behind anyone else in the league -- and also last in defense with 3.80 goals allowed per game. At 5-on-5, Detroit has been outscored 133-73.  

Injuries have certainly hurt -- young standout Anthony Mantha has been out since December with injuries including a punctured lung, while forwards Frans Nielsen and first-round pick Filip Zadina as well as defensemen Mike Green and Danny DeKeyser are also out -- while the team is perilously short on depth. 

There are some good pieces there, including forwards Dylan Larkin and Tyler Bertuzzi. Larkin leads the way with a 15-24-39 line, while Bertuzzi has 18 goals among his 37 points, but the team does miss Mantha and his 24 points in 29 games. 

Defenseman Filip Hronek looks like a winner, as the 22-year-old has nine goals and 18 assists for 27 points, while Robby Fabbri has an 11-16-27 line in 38 games.  

In net, Jimmy Howard will likely get the nod after Jonathan Bernier started Thursday vs. Buffalo. Howard is in the midst of a forgettable season, going 2-20-2 -- he's lost 17 straight game and is without a win since October -- with a 4.12 goals-against average and .884 save percentage.  

3 Keys to the Game   

Come to play: Tortorella was displeased with his team's practice effort Thursday, and you could say this matchup against a struggling Detroit team is a trap game. The Blue Jackets must bring the effort. 

Ride the wave: Columbus is 9-1-1 in its last 11 home games, outscoring foes 35-14 in that span. A large Friday night crowd is expected in Nationwide Arena, so there will be plenty of energy in the building. 

Defensive identity: Detroit averages barely two goals per game this season but has seven in two contests against Columbus. The Blue Jackets need to lean into their strong defensive play to do better.  

Of Note   

The Blue Jackets have points in nine straight games (8-0-1) as well as 17 consecutive games vs. Eastern Conference foes (13-0-4). … Oliver Bjorkstrand has 10 goals during his last nine games (10-3-13) including a four two-goal games. … Pierre-Luc Dubois has a 7-17-24 line in his last 23 games and is plus-17. He has eight points in his last five games. … Elvis Merzlikins has won seven straight starts with four shutouts. He has allowed eight goals in that span with a .965 save percentage. … Cam Atkinson is two goals from the 200 mark, while Seth Jones is two assists from 200 in his career. … The Blue Jackets have won the first two games of the season series, capturing a 5-4 win in Nationwide Arena on Nov. 21 and a 5-3 victory in Detroit on Dec. 17. Columbus is 20-4-2 in the last 26 contests vs. Detroit. 

Projected Lineup 

(Subject to change) 

Nick Foligno - Pierre-Luc Dubois - Oliver Bjorkstrand 

Gus Nyquist - Boone Jenner - Cam Atkinson 

Sonny Milano - Riley Nash - Emil Bemstrom 

Nathan Gerbe - Ryan MacInnis - Kevin Stenlund 

Zach Werenski - Seth Jones     

Vladislav Gavrikov - David Savard      

Scott Harrington - Markus Nutivaara    

Elvis Merzlikins  

Matiss Kivlenieks 

Scratches: Eric Robinson (injury), Andrew Peeke, Joonas Korpisalo (injury)  

Roster Report: Stenlund looks likely to enter for Robinson after the latter blocked a shot Tuesday vs. Florida and did not practice the past two days. Tortorella will not address the media until after the team's pregame meeting, at which point he'll give the lineup. 

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