Skip to main content
The Official Site of the Columbus Blue Jackets

PREVIEW: Blue Jackets look to find offense vs. Pittsburgh

Expected return of Cam Atkinson could add to Columbus' attack

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com
BLUE JACKETS (33-22-15) vs. PENGUINS (40-23-6) 

Thursday, 7 p.m., Nationwide Arena (FOX Sports OhioCBJ appFOX Sports app102.5 FM)  

As Nick Foligno walked into the newly minted interview room in the bowels of Nationwide Arena, he took the place of Cam Atkinson in front of the cameras.  

"Isn't it great to see Cam?" Foligno asked rhetorically to the media in place. 

MORE: Game to be played without public attendance | Players ready to play in empty building

Certainly, it is for the Blue Jackets and their fans. After being out since Feb. 8 with a high ankle sprain - the second such injury layoff of the year for the talented winger - Atkinson is set to return to the Blue Jackets tonight against Pittsburgh. 

"I'll play tomorrow," Atkinson said. "I feel confident, feel good enough to play tomorrow. Unless something crazy happens overnight, I'm in tomorrow." 

Of course, Atkinson likely did not see the suspension of the NBA season coming, nor was he sure yet that the Blue Jackets would be playing in front of a quiet Nationwide Arena because of measures taken to slow the spread of coronavirus. 

The NHL released a statement Wednesday night that it "is continuing to consult with medical experts and is evaluating the options" in regard to whether Thursday's games will happen, with a further update expected at some point today. 

If the Blue Jackets and Penguins do take to the Nationwide Arena ice as planned, some of the focus will be on Columbus trying to create offense. Despite some much-improved play, the Blue Jackets scored only five goals on their recent three-game Western Canada swing. 

The reintroduction of Atkinson into the lineup could help in that regard. His offensive bona fides are well known, as he is coming off a 41-goal season and is second all-time in CBJ annals in goals with 198.  

"The boys have done a great job finding ways to get points and keeping us in the race," Atkinson said. "I am hoping and I know that with my game and my confidence that I'll be able to help the team score some goals and do what I've always been capable of doing, and that's putting the puck in the back of the net or helping my linemates put the puck in the net as well." 

Head coach John Tortorella said one of the reasons the Blue Jackets were able to perform so well, especially defensively, on the western trip was a series of video meetings in which coaches showed the team clips that drove home what it needed to do be successful.  

It's Tortorella's hope that playing the right way and not forcing the issue will allow the team to create more scoring chances as it hits the stretch run. 

"The big question mark out here is where's the offense, and rightfully so," Tortorella said. "My biggest challenge is to make sure our players understand that being above the puck is going to help you offensively. We're not getting much offense by hanging down by the goal line hoping we're going to get a pay, and they're getting an odd-man rush and we'll pick it up out of the back of our net. 

"We're showing them things about being above the puck and how much offense we can get off of it, how much forecheck we can get off of it. We have (a video session) tomorrow morning on some of the good things we did in that trip. All three games, there was some really good stuff. We're going to see it tomorrow.  

"Sometimes you have a mind-set of correcting. Right now, we're in the mind-set of showing the good stuff that we've done, especially this time of year, just to show that this can be accomplished this way in how we're playing." 

Know the Foe 

If any team can relate to the number of injuries the Blue Jackets have had this season, it's Pittsburgh. Names like Crosby, Malkin and Letang have spent time on the shelf, while Jake Guentzel, Nick Bjugstad and Dominik Simon are all out at the moment with injuries. 

Yet that hasn't stopped the Penguins from carrying on as usual, as the team is in the thick of the playoff race again and is primed to make its 14th consecutive Stanley Cup Playoffs appearance.  

It's been a season where the Penguins' depth has shined, as 19 players have at least 10 points, 13 have at least 20, seven have at least 30 and five have at least 40. The Pens average 3.20 goals per game, 10th in the NHL, while giving up 2.84 to place 11th.  

After a struggle a season ago, Evgeni Malkin has reestablished himself as one of the game's elite players, pumping in 25 goals with 49 assists for 74 points in just 55 games. Bryan Rust has been the unsung hero of the season as the former role player has taken on a bigger job this season with all the injuries and has a team-best 27 goals among his 56 points. 

Sidney Crosby has played in just 41 of 69 games and has a 16-31-47 line to top a point per game. Kris Letang has played in 61 games and has 15 goals and 44 points, while Patric Hornqvist has 17 goals and Jared McCann has 14. The team is without Guentzel still, who was injured in December and has 20 goals in 39 games. 

In net, Tristan Jarry has the better numbers than Matt Murray, going 20-12-1 in 33 games and having a 2.43 goals-against average and a .921 save percentage. Murray has played 38 games and is 20-11-5 with a 2.87 GAA and .899 save percentage.  

3 Keys to the Game 

Energy level: Torts' favorite measure of how this team plays has been key, and the Blue Jackets played with energy in Western Canada. They'll need it to take on the Penguins 

Avoid a track meet: Pittsburgh can create in transition at a moment's notice, so the "above the puck" philosophy has to be fully engaged. 

Focus: With Nationwide Arena to be largely empty for the game, it'll be a unique experience to be sure. As hard as it will be to adjust, the Blue Jackets just need to play their game. 

Of Note 

Columbus has points in 33 of 41 games (22-8-11). … 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). … Gus Nyquist has goals in three of four games while Emil Bemstrom has tallied in five of eight. Nyquist scored a hat trick vs. Pittsburgh on Nov. 29. … Foligno is four goals from 200 in his career. … Columbus has won two straight vs. Pittsburgh in Nationwide Arena and is 1-1-1 overall against the Penguins this season. 

Projected Lineup  

(Subject to change)  

Gustav Nyquist - Boone Jenner - Nick Foligno   

Alexander Wennberg - Pierre-Luc Dubois - Emil Bemstrom   

Cam Atkinson - Riley Nash - Eric Robinson   

Jakob Lilja - Devin Shore - Kevin Stenlund 

Vladislav Gavrikov - David Savard   

Zach Werenski - Markus Nutivaara  

Scott Harrington - Andrew Peeke   

Joonas Korpisalo   

Elvis Merzlikins 

Scratches: Oliver Bjorkstrand (injury), Nathan Gerbe (injury), Stefan Matteau, Ryan MacInnis, Ryan Murray (injury), Gabriel Carlsson 

Roster Report: Atkinson skated on line rushes with Nash and Robinson on Wednesday. His likely return will move Stenlund down a line while Matteau appears headed to being a healthy scratch.  

View More