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PREVIEW: Columbus hosts Tampa Bay for first time since playoff sweep

Blue Jackets, Lightning have been the hottest teams in NHL over past two months

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com
BLUE JACKETS (30-17-9) vs. LIGHTNING (35-15-5)  

Monday, 7:30 p.m. ET, Nationwide Arena (NBCSN, NBCSports.com, NBC Sports app, 97.1 The Fan

BUY TICKETS (Third jersey game; Ohio Lottery Lucky Night with Blue Jackets scratch-offs for all fans)

Over the last three games, the Blue Jackets have outshot foes 121-70. According to Natural Stat Trick, the Blue Jackets at 5-on-5 have had an expected goals mark of 7.37 while giving up just 3.37 expected goals, veritable dominance in the amount and quality of shots the team has manufactured. 

And yet Columbus has scored just four goals in that span, none of them coming at 5-on-5. Columbus got its lone goal of Tuesday's win over Florida in overtime, scored on a 6-on-5 delayed penalty and added an empty-netter Friday in the victory against Detroit, and tallied only on the power play in Saturday night's 2-1 setback vs. Colorado. 

In all, Columbus has 96 shots on goal at 5-on-5 in the last three games and none of them have gone in.  

A hat must be tipped to the goaltenders the Blue Jackets have played in that span, all of which turned in solid performances. There's a little bad luck to the equation, as well, and odds are if you keep dominating the puck the way the Jackets have over the past three games, goals and wins will come. 

That in many ways was the thought of Nick Foligno after Saturday night's loss to Colorado that snapped the team's nine-game point streak. 

"I'm not gonna get down on the way we played," he said. "We did a lot of good things in that game. 

"We just have to shore up a little bit of 5-on-5 play that cost us on a couple of those, and also I think we can make it easy on ourselves with our power play. We have to find a way to get that going." 

His point about the power play notwithstanding -- the Blue Jackets finished 1-for-5 against the Avs -- he was right that the Blue Jackets don't have much reason to panic after the way they have played of late.  

Head coach John Tortorella said his team will have to continue to play with a defensive focus on being above the puck as games get tighter down the stretch, and the Blue Jackets did just that against Colorado while keeping the Avs to just 22 shots on goal. The Blue Jackets cleared the front of the net, not allowing a 5-on-5 shot on goal from below the dots in the slot, and it's the same style the team will have to play Monday night against a Tampa Bay team that is flying right now. 

While the game is notable for it being the first matchup of the Blue Jackets and Lightning since last year's stunning CBJ sweep of the top-seeded Bolts in the playoffs, what is also notable right now is the two teams are the hottest in the NHL. 

Since Dec. 9, Tampa Bay is 21-5-2 for an NHL-best 44 points in 28 games. In that span, the Lightning have been dominant on both sides of the ice, scoring 3.43 goals per game and allowing 2.25 with a goal differential of plus-33.  

The goals-against mark would lead the NHL were it not for the Blue Jackets, who are 19-3-5 in 27 games for 43 points in that two-month span. Columbus has scored 2.81 goals per game in that span but allowed just 1.67, more than half a goal better than the Bolts defensively. The Blue Jackets are plus-31 in goal differential in that span. 

It's as intriguing a matchup as there is for a February NHL game, and Boone Jenner said the Blue Jackets will take the lessons from the Colorado game and apply them against the Lightning 

"We gotta learn from this one," he said Saturday. "Now we're just focused on Monday." 

The stakes also were raised Monday as the Blue Jackets found out they will be dealing with a pair of key injuries. Veteran right wing Cam Atkinson is out for the game, while All-Star defenseman Seth Jones is out indefinitely after suffering an ankle injury Saturday vs. Colorado. The game will also mark the debut of 2018 first-round pick Liam Foudy, who will play wing.

Know the Foe 

After a loss at Washington on Dec. 21, the Lightning sat at 17-13-4, a solid mark but also one that was nowhere near the same pace a year ago when the Bolts won an NHL-record-tying 62 games and dominated the league. 

There were some questions about where the team's mind-set was coming off of last year's jarring four-game sweep at the hands of the Blue Jackets, but since then, those have largely been answered. Tampa Bay has gone 18-2-1 in its last 21 games, including a six-game winning streak the Lightning will bring into Columbus for this Monday showdown. 

Again the Lightning have one of the best offenses in the league, sitting second in the NHL - just behind Colorado - in goals per game with 3.58. The Bolts are also sixth in the league now in team defense with 2.73 goals allowed per game, not to mention fifth in the NHL in power play and third in penalty kill. 

Seven members of the squad have at least 35 points, led by Nikita Kucherov, last year's Hart Trophy winner who has been on fire of late. The Russian star has a 10-game point streak that includes eight goals and 10 assists for 18 points, with eight multipoint games in that span.  

Steven Stamkos is also having another excellent year with a 26-33-59 line but is out for this game, while Brayden Point is at nearly a point per game with 20 goals and 51 points in 52 games. Victor Hedman is having another Norris Trophy-level season with a 9-36-45 line and plus-18 rating, while Alex Killorn (21-20-41), Anthony Cirelli (14-25-39) and Ondrej Palat (14-22-36) are also consistent scorers. 

In net, Andrei Vasilevskiy is absolutely on fire as he has points in his last 18 starts (16-0-2) with a .931 save percentage in that span. Overall, he's 29-9-3 with a 2.48 goals-against average and .918 save percentage. The backup is former Blue Jackets goalie Curtis McElhinney, who is 6-6-2 with a 2.88 GAA and .909 save percentage. McElhinney will get the start against the Jackets tonight.

3 Keys to the Game   

Avoid the kill: Columbus has taken just 21 penalties in the last 11 games and allowed a single power-play goal in that span. A year after leading the NHL in power play, the Bolts are humming at 24.4 percent, but the Blue Jackets shut down that man advantage in the postseason. 

Finish chances: We're not going to sit here and panic about the recent goal-scoring woes considering how much Columbus has controlled play, but one thing the CBJ did well in the postseason was complete its chances against the Bolts.  

Keep going: The Blue Jackets have been able to overcome injuries for much of the season, but losing Jones is as big a loss as there is. Markus Nutivaara will go on the top pairing while Scott Harrington draws into the lineup, but the team is looking at making up about 25 minutes per game of defensive zone prowess. 

Of Note

The Blue Jackets have points in 18 consecutive games vs. Eastern Conference foes (14-0-4). … Elvis Merzlikins has an 8-1-0 record in his last nine starts with just 10 goals allowed and a .962 save percentage. Monday, he was named the NHL's first star of the week. … Gus Nyquist is two assists from 200 in his NHL career. … Zach Werenski leads all NHL defensemen with a CBJ-record 17 goals this season. ... The game ends a four-game homestand for Columbus, which is 10-2-1 in its last 13 contests in Nationwide Arena with seven sellouts in the last 10 home games. … The Blue Jackets are 7-0-0 on Mondays this season. … Columbus is 0-5-1 in the last six regular season games vs. Tampa Bay but 4-0 in the last four playoff games.  

Projected Lineup 

(Subject to change) 

Nick Foligno - Pierre-Luc Dubois - Oliver Bjorkstrand 

Gus Nyquist - Boone Jenner - Liam Foudy

Sonny Milano - Riley Nash - Emil Bemstrom 

Nathan Gerbe - Kevin Stenlund - Eric Robinson 

Zach Werenski - Markus Nutivaara

Vladislav Gavrikov - David Savard

Scott Harrington - Andrew Peeke

Elvis Merzlikins  

Matiss Kivlenieks 

Scratches: Cam Atkinson (inj), Gabriel Carlsson Joonas Korpisalo (injury)  

Roster Report: The Blue Jackets will turn to Foudy on wing to try to provide some offense, while Harrington goes in for the injured Jones and the defensive pairs see a shakeup.

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