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PREVIEW: Blue Jackets look to steady ship vs. Edmonton

Columbus battling for playoff positioning in East

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

BLUE JACKETS (40-29-4) at OILERS (32-34-7)
Thursday, 9 p.m., Rogers Place, Edmonton (FOX Sports Ohio, CBJ appFOX Sports app, 97.1 The Fan)

Exactly two weeks ago, the Blue Jackets entered the biggest stretch of their season when they went on the road to take on Pittsburgh on a Thursday night. 

It kicked off a stretch of seven consecutive games in which the Blue Jackets would play teams either definitely or likely headed to a playoff berth, and four of the games would come against clubs the Jackets were directly battling for positioning in the Metropolitan Division race. 

So how did they do? 

Perfectly average, as it turns out. Columbus went 3-3-1 in the span to earn seven of a possible 14 points. There was a split with rival Pittsburgh, taking three points of four from Boston, and a gritty win over Carolina, plus setbacks at the New York Islanders and then finally Tuesday's loss vs. Calgary. 

In many ways, it was the playoffs before the playoffs for the Blue Jackets, who now have nine games remaining and little margin for error down the stretch. 

CBJ at Edmonton: Korpisalo to start | Who to root for

"That's a good way to look at it," defenseman Scott Harrington said when asked if this was a playoff audition for the Blue Jackets. "We've had a tough schedule, but if you want to make the playoffs and you want to do damage in the playoffs, those are the teams you have to beat. It's great to prepare us for what's potentially upcoming and where we want to be." 

It was a run good enough to keep Columbus on the right side of the playoff bar in the Eastern Conference, but it has allowed Montreal to creep within a point of the Jackets, while Carolina (three points) and Pittsburgh (five) have pulled away a bit. 

But the good news is the schedule eases a bit for the Jackets, starting with the game vs. Edmonton. Of course, beating the Oilers is no easy task, as the Blue Jackets discovered during a 4-0 loss to the team earlier this month, but Edmonton is the first team Columbus has played that isn't on the right side of the playoff bar since March 5. 

Of the nine remaining games, just three will come against teams currently in the playoffs, though a fourth - the March 28 home game vs. Montreal - looms large given how the Canadiens are lurking just behind the Blue Jackets. 

According to a story posted Wednesday on NHL.com, Columbus faces the eighth-easiest schedule of an NHL team down the stretch, at least as far as opposing point percentage is concerned. For comparison's sake, Montreal faces the second-hardest, while Carolina battles the fifth most difficult slate. 

But of course, those numbers mean nothing if the Jackets don't accumulate more points than their rivals down the stretch. As for how the Jackets played during its recent seven-game gantlet, there was some good and some bad. 

Defensively, the team is improving, having allowed just 16 goals in the seven-game stretch. Take out empty-net goals scored in the wins by Pittsburgh, New York and Calgary and the Blue Jackets allowed 1.86 goals per game with a goaltender in the net. 

"It's just everything working together," Harrington said. "Obviously our goalies are playing really well right now, I think just as a five-man unit in the D zone, we've identified that this time of year that you can't be giving up a lot of goals. You want to be competitive. You want to be in every game, so it's been a real conscious effort by everyone to clamp down." 

On the other hand, the team hasn't exactly lit up scoreboards across the country. The Blue Jackets were shut out twice in that span and scored just 17 goals themselves, a number buoyed by the seven-goal outburst in the home win vs. Boston. 

While there have been encouraging signs that new forwards Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel have integrated into the attack, and that the top line is close to returning to form, the Blue Jackets will need more offense down the stretch to truly contend. 

"We hit four or five posts, their goalie made some good saves, we miss the net, their D made some good blocks," Zach Werenski said after Columbus lost 4-2 to Calgary on Tuesday. "We just have to bear down harder on our chances and find a way to put it in the net instead of just missing or hitting the goalie or hitting a defenseman, the post, or something. We had some chances, we just have to find ways to score." 

Time is running out on another regular season for the Blue Jackets. Having success in the postseason could come down to applying the lessons of the last seven games to the final nine, then the Stanley Cup Playoffs.  

"We've played a lot of good hockey against some really good competition," Tortorella said. "There are some really good things going on with the team, but as games come at you and they start clicking off, you have to be better."

Know the Foe 

When the Blue Jackets played Edmonton in early March in Nationwide Arena, the Oilers were hanging on for dear life in the playoff race. 

That's still the case, but that effort is truly now on life support. Edmonton comes into Thursday night's game seven points behind the final playoff spot in the Western Conference with nine games to go, and on top of that, the Oilers will have to jump five teams to get there. 

In short, nothing less than a near flawless performance down the stretch will put Connor McDavid and Co. into the playoffs, which would be the second straight season Edmonton and the league's best player missed out.  

Former Blue Jackets head coach Ken Hitchcock has taken over for the second half of the season, but after an initial bump, defensive woes and a lack of forward depth has doomed Edmonton. But the Jackets learned firsthand how dangerous this team can be when it was shutout at home by the Oilers earlier this month. 

McDavid continues to be the star of the show, with Leon Draisaitl in the running for Best Supporting Actor. McDavid is second in the NHL in points with 105 thanks to 36 goals and 69 assists. Meanwhile, Draisaitl is second in the league in goals with 43 and has 91 points.  

It's still a top-heavy team, though. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has a 24-36-60 line but no one else has more than 35 points, though Alex Chiasson has 20 goals. Starting goalie Mikko Koskinen is 22-18-4 and has a 2.89 goals-against average and .909 save percentage. 

3 Keys 

Control the McDavid line: Easier said than done, right? McDavid is one of the most dynamic forwards in the NHL and was plus-4 in the Jackets' 4-0 setback to the Oilers in Columbus. Not much has changed in that Columbus can't let McDavid and Draisaitl beat them. 

Score goals: Obvious, but the Jackets need to create some good vibes on offense after another game where it felt like the team couldn't convert its best chances. Edmonton could be the tonic that ails the team, as the Oilers are sixth from bottom in goals allowed. 

Play 60 minutes: Against Calgary, pretty much every CBJ mistake seemed to end up in the back of the net for the Flames. Columbus must make the Oilers earn it.  

Of Note 

Tuesday's loss ended a three-game point streak for Columbus. … The Blue Jackets are 14-3-0 on Thursdays this season, setting a franchise record for most wins on a single day in a campaign. ... The Blue Jackets are 20-13-2 on the road but are 0-3-1 in their last four away from Nationwide Arena, and six of the final nine games will be away from home.

Blue Jackets Projected Lineup  

Subject to change  

Artemi Panarin - Pierre-Luc Dubois - Cam Atkinson  

Ryan Dzingel - Matt Duchene - Josh Anderson 

Alexander Wennberg - Boone Jenner - Oliver Bjorkstrand

Riley Nash - Brandon Dubinsky - Eric Robinson

Zach Werenski - Seth Jones 

Markus Nutivaara - David Savard 

Scott Harrington - Adam McQuaid 

Joonas Korpisalo (confirmed starter)

Keith Kinkaid

Scratched: Markus Hannikainen, Lukas Sedlak, Nick Foligno, Dean Kukan, Sergei Bobrovsky

Roster Report: Foligno continues to be away from the team as he deals with a family issue while Nutivaara will return after missing Tuesday's game because of illness. Korpisalo will get the start in net as Bobrovsky is "nicked," according to head coach John Tortorella.


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