CANADIENS (27-16-5) at BLUE JACKETS (27-15-3)
Friday, 7 p.m., Nationwide Arena (FOX Sports Ohio, CBJ app, FOX Sports app, CD 102.5 FM)
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As the Blue Jackets began the third period of Tuesday's game against New Jersey holding a 4-1 lead, recent history suggested that was one of the worst places Columbus could be.
In the first three games of the team's four-game win streak, the Blue Jackets had given up goals in the late going. Against Nashville, it was two in the last five minutes to turn a 3-1 lead into a 3-3 tie. Against Washington, a 1-0 lead the team had nursed from the opening minutes disappeared with the Caps' net empty. And the Rangers had turned a 6-3 romp into a 6-5 nailbiter in the late going before Nick Foligno's goal iced a third straight win.
But there was no panic in the Blue Jackets vs. the Devils. Joonas Korpisalo and the Blue Jackets slammed the door, limiting New Jersey's scoring chances and finishing the 4-1 victory.
"I liked our third period," head coach John Tortorella said afterward. "They score a late goal (in the second). I thought that might give them some juice, but I thought we checked, didn't give up any odd-man rushes and just played straight ahead. I thought we were much more aware away from the puck in the third period."
The previous game vs. New York, Tortorella rued the way the Jackets had struggled down the stretch, referring to the end of the game as a "cluster … fun" and lamenting, "We almost got through a game in a normal way of doing things."
The biggest battle for a hockey team leading in the final minutes is striking the correct balance between aggressive and smart. The Blue Jackets have employed a "safe is death" mantra the past few seasons, and the team's defensemen have been encouraged to join the play and push the pace.
But there's also the reality that a team has to play smart as it tries to come home with a lead. No one is perfect, of course, but taking an unnecessary risk with the lead late is one of the quickest ways to find one's self in the coaches' doghouse. There's a fine line between playing straight ahead and icing a puck, giving a team a faceoff right next to the goalie.
"I think there is a line," said center Pierre-Luc Dubois, who is often on the ice protecting a lead in the late minutes. "You know they're going to be pressing a lot. Their D is going to be jumping in, their forwards maybe staying in, too. But I think in there, there's your sense of attacking them. I think sometimes you think you have to defend with five guys, and obviously you do, but once you get that puck behind them you can exploit those weaknesses, expose the fact that they have the fourth D in.
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"It's defending first, but when you get those attacking chances, I still think you have to take them."
Columbus did do that against both the Caps and Rangers as well. Against New York, it led directly to a goal, as a Rangers team that was trying to get its goalie pulled and push for the tying goal in the last two minutes was too focused on getting up the ice rather than battling for the puck. Foligno was able to steal the puck behind the net, outmuscle multiple Rangers and score to turn the one-goal lead into a two-goal cushion.
The Blue Jackets tried to do the same against Washington. Up 1-0 with two minutes to go, the top line cycled the puck through the Caps' zone and Artemi Panarin was hauled down. The team was incensed no penalty was called, and Washington eventually scored the tying goal.
"It's about getting the puck as far away from your net as possible and keeping it too," Dubois said. "Nick's goal the other day, they're all looking at our net and the puck is in their zone. When you have that chance and have an open guy, you can't be too scared to make the play. We did a good job of that the other day."
Closing out games is never easy, especially in an NHL where come-from-behind wins are at an all-time high. For Columbus, Tuesday night's game was a step in the right direction when it comes to doing it on a more consistent basis.
"The opponent, they do double or nothing every time they come," defenseman Markus Nutivaara said, "so they can get those lucky bounces. It's hard to stop, but of course you have to try to get through those momentum switches."
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Know the Foe
Montreal has been almost a league average team this year in terms of scoring margin, tallying 3.00 goals per game and allowing 2.96. Part of the offensive struggles can be traced to a power play that enters last in the NHL, producing at a 12.9-percent rate.
The Habs have had balanced scoring throughout the season with Max Domi leading the way with a team-best 15 goals and 41 points. Jonathan Drouin is next with a 13-22-35 line while Tomas Tatar has 14 goals and 34 points. The top-scoring defenseman is Jeff Petry (10-23-33) and plays 23:43 per night, second on the team only to Shea Weber (7-7-14, +10)
Carey Price has started 35 games and is expected to get the start in Columbus on Friday. The veteran is 18-13-4 on the campaign with a 2.65 goals-against and .912 save percentage. Antti Niemi (8-4-1, 3.63, .897) backs up.
The Canadiens come in at fourth in the Atlantic Division with 57 points and are in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race, sitting in the top wild card spot.
The teams meet again Feb. 19 in Montreal and March 28 in Columbus.
Brandon Dubinsky should be back in the lineup. He skated at Columbus' Thursday practice on a line with Alexander Wennberg and was activated from injured reserve afterward. The third spot on that line rotated between rookie Kevin Stenlund and Anthony Duclair. ... Columbus has won the season series each of the past three years, going 6-2-1 and outscoring Montreal 31-14. ... The Blue Jackets are 9 for their last 24 on the power play vs. Montreal and 4 for their last 13 over the current four-game winning streak. ... Columbus has four of the five shutouts in the Montreal series. ... Josh Anderson has points in four straight home games.
Blue Jackets projected lineup
Artemi Panarin - Pierre-Luc Dubois - Cam Atkinson
Nick Foligno - Boone Jenner - Josh Anderson
Brandon Dubinsky - Alexander Wennberg - Kevin Stenlund
Oliver Bjorkstrand - Riley Nash - Lukas Sedlak
Zach Werenski - Seth Jones
Ryan Murray - Markus Nutivaara
Scott Harrington - David Savard
Scratched: Dean Kukan, Anthony Duclair