BLUE JACKETS (3-3-0) at BLACKHAWKS (1-2-1)
Friday, 8:30 p.m. ET, United Center, Chicago (FOX Sports Ohio, CBJ app, FOX Sports app, CD102.5 FM)
Six games into the season, it looks like the Blue Jackets -- for the time being -- have their six defensemen.
One of the most intriguing battles coming into camp was how the top six would break down considering the Blue Jackets were inviting nine defensemen to camp who either played critical roles for the team a year ago or were part of the postseason roster, plus a talented rookie in Andrew Peeke.
Such talents as Seth Jones and Zach Werenski were going to make the cut, of course, and savvy veterans Ryan Murray, David Savard and Markus Nutivaara went into camp with lots of experience. Then there were two players who had worked their way into roles last year in Scott Harrington and Dean Kukan; Russian standout Vladislav Gavrikov, who starred in the KHL and with his national team; and Adam Clendening, who was coming off an excellent season with AHL Cleveland, not to mention a notable Stanley Cup playoff showing.
Clendening was assigned to Cleveland in camp and Peeke lasted until the final cut, but the other eight all have made the roster. All eight also got into action in the first two games, but for four games in a row going into Friday night's game in Chicago, Harrington and Kukan have had to sit out while the other six have played.
There also appears to be chemistry going with the pairs as well. Jones and Werenski have been reunited, with the two who were named in NHL Network's top 20 defensemen league wide again forming a top pairing with lots of pace and tempo.
"I always feel very comfortable with Jones and Z," head coach John Tortorella said. "I think they help one another. I think that pair together gives us better push for our team. I'm not sure if we stay with it -- it depends on a number of different things -- but I've always liked how they set the tempo for our club as we play them together."
While Jones began the season with Murray, the smooth-skating defenseman has formed a solid bond over the past three games with Nutivaara. Assistant coach Brad Shaw said the duo is an easy one to put together because of the way their games mesh, and Nutivaara said the two have no trouble playing with one another.
"I like the way he plays," Nutivaara said. "We have the same mind-set. We don't talk that much on the ice. We just know that he's going to be there, I'm going to be there. It makes the game so much faster."
But perhaps the pair subject to the most intrigue has Gavrikov on the left and Savard on the right. The two big bodies with beards call to mind the old "Lumberjackets" pairing of Savard and Ian Cole that meshed two seasons ago.
While Shaw said Gavrikov is a different player than the longtime NHLer Cole, the Russian import does help bring similar characteristics to the pairing.
"They sort of play at the same pace, they seem to think the game at the same pace, they are pretty much unflappable out there, they are pretty calm under pressure, which is a nice thing to have," Shaw said. "They're an easy pair to put out in the D-zone, that's for sure.
As for Kukan and Harrington, the two were integral parts of last season's stretch run and playoff performance, and Shaw said each has to stay ready. At some point, the call will come.
"We know we're going to need good games and good minutes from them as well," he said.
Know The Foe
Having begun the season overseas with an opening game against Philadelphia in Prague, Chicago has played just four games thus far, opening with the 1-2-1 record with the lone win coming in the team's last game Monday vs. Edmonton. The team is in the midst of a seven-game homestand.
The Blackhawks figure to be a team that can score again - especially when it gets the United Center crowd behind it - but so far the squad has netted 12 goals while giving up 13. On the defensive end, the penalty kill is yet to find its rhythm, as it's clicking at just 61.5 percent (8-for-13).
Up front, the team is led as usual by Patrick Kane, who is tied for the team lead with two goals and owns the outright points lead with five. Former Blue Jackets forward Brandon Saad, new acquisition Alexander Nylander and old favorite Andrew Shaw each have two goals, and Dylan Strome is off to a 1-2-3 start. But Jonathan Toews is yet to get going with just a single assist on the year.
In net, Corey Crawford has started three games and is 1-2-0 with a 3.41 goals-against average and .900 save percentage. Former Islanders goalie Robin Lehner took the team's overtime loss, giving up three goals in an OT setback vs. Winnipeg last Saturday.
3 Keys to the Game
Handle the environment: The United Center is the biggest building in the NHL and gets rocking when the Blackhawks get going. Columbus can't let the momentum get away.
Keep the defense going: The Blue Jackets have largely been strong when it comes to limiting chances over the last four games. That's key against a team featuring Kane, Toews, and others.
Power play power: Columbus has gone three games without a power-play goal but has been creating solid chances. It seems like only a matter of time until the Jackets convert.
The game is the team's Dads' Trip for the season, with a number of the players' fathers accompanying the Blue Jackets to the Windy City. ... AAA Blue Jackets alum and Dublin native Connor Murphy has played in three games for the Blackhawks without a point. He missed the opener with a groin injury. ... Columbus broke a three-game losing streak in Chicago with last year's 5-3 win. ... The teams have split the season series each of the past four years. … Boone Jenner is one point away from 200 in his NHL and CBJ careers (102-97-199), while Oliver Bjorkstrand is a single point from 100 (46-53-99). … Riley Nash is two assists away from 100 in his career. … Nick Foligno is four games from playing his 500th contest in a Blue Jackets sweater, while David Savard is five away. … Savard and Zach Werenski each have 40 career goals, one away from tying the CBJ's all-time record for goals among defensemen (Rostislav Klesla, 2001-11). Seth Jones is one back from his teammates with 39 goals.
(Subject to change)
Gustav Nyquist - Pierre-Luc Dubois - Cam Atkinson
Nick Foligno - Alexander Wennberg - Oliver Bjorkstrand
Alexandre Texier - Boone Jenner - Emil Bemstrom
Jakob Lilja - Riley Nash - Sonny Milano
Zach Werenski - Seth Jones
Markus Nutivaara - Ryan Murray
Vladislav Gavrikov - David Savard
Elvis Merzlikins (confirmed starter)
Scratches: Markus Hannikainen, Dean Kukan, Scott Harrington
Roster Report: Josh Anderson has missed four consecutive games with an upper-body injury but skated with the full team during its practice Thursday. Afterward, head coach John Tortorella said he's making progress toward a return but did not have an update on when he would return.