BLUE JACKETS (3-3-2) at MAPLE LEAFS (5-3-1)
Monday, 7 p.m., Scotiabank Arena, Toronto (FOX Sports Ohio, CBJ app, FOX Sports app, 97.1 The Fan)
So far, rumors of the demise of the Columbus Blue Jackets have proved to be overblown.
At the same time, the team will have to get better results than it has through the first 10 percent of the season to make a fourth straight trip to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Ten percent, of course, isn't a lot, but it is perhaps the point where you can start putting stock in the bigger-picture trends we've seen so far. For the Blue Jackets, that means looking at both the results the team has and the way it has played.
When it comes to the results, a team that many predicted would fall down the Metropolitan Division standings instead has eight points in eight games, and has claimed points in five of the last six -- including four in a row -- after a tough two-game start that included losses to Toronto and Pittsburgh by a combined 11-3 score.
The team has certainly steadied the ship since then, with the defensive game rounding into shape and goaltenders Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins turning in creditable performances. It's been a true partnership between the netminders and the defense, with the end result being Korpisalo has turned in a .926 save percentage in his last four starts while Merzlikins returned from his self-described "nightmare" of a debut to stop 30 of 33 shots -- a .909 percentage -- in Friday's OT loss at Chicago.
At the same time, a point per game all season would leave the team short of a return bid to the playoffs, and it feels like opportunities were missed in each of the last two games when the Blue Jackets lost in overtime.
The Blue Jackets controlled the pace of play for large stretches of those games and had advantages in offensive zone time as well as scoring chances, but whether through bad luck, great saves or a finish that was just a bit off, Columbus couldn't get the goals it needed to win either.
"We have to start finishing," defenseman Seth Jones said. "Moral victories, so to speak, with just creating chances and losing tight games isn't going to cut it. It's not going to get you in the playoffs. We have to start bearing down on some of these chances.
"I know it'll come. I know we have the skill in here to put the puck in the net and create."
Columbus went through a similar stretch at the end of last season where it felt it did enough to win games but still suffered through a tremendous scoring slump. In the first 11 games of March, Columbus scored just 22 goals, was shut out three times and reached the three-goal mark just thrice while going 4-6-1. That stretch was then followed up by 35 goals in the last eight regular-season games as the team went 7-1-0, plus 19 more in the four-game sweep of Tampa Bay to begin the postseason.
The message has been that as long as chances come, they'll eventually go in. And if the team keeps playing the way it has been, the chances will likely keep coming.
"I think we've played good all year long other than half a game in Pittsburgh," head coach John Tortorella said. "We have played real good hockey. We have to finish. I'm not just talking two nights, I think we've put in a lot of good minutes here in the early part of this year."
Know The Foe
The Maple Leafs will be the first repeat opponent the Blue Jackets face this year, as the teams met in Columbus' season opener, a 4-1 Toronto win Oct. 4 in Nationwide Arena. Mitch Marner scored twice in the game, while Auston Matthews and Cody Ceci also tallied.
Most hockey fans know of the team's firepower up front, though it is dulled a bit at the moment as captain John Tavares -- who has a 14-19-33 line in 27 career games vs. Columbus as well as seven points in eight games this year -- is out with a broken finger.
But the Leafs still have Matthews and Marner, two of the NHL's top point producers who are each off to good starts. Matthews' seven goals so far this year are tied for third in the NHL going into Sunday's action, while Marner has 11 points (three goals, eight assists) to tie for 10th in scoring. The two young standouts were grouped on a line together for the first time this year in the team's last game, an OT win vs. Boston, and combined for three assists.
In addition, defenseman Morgan Rielly -- the NHL's top goal-scoring blueliner a year ago -- is off to another strong start with a 2-9-11 line, while 25-year-old Russian winger Ilya Mikheyev has impressed with a 3-4-7 line in nine games.
While Toronto's 3.89 goals per game is third in the league, the 3.33 allowed is 19th. Frederik Andersen has started seven games and is 5-2-0 with a 3.09 goals-against average and .902 save percentage, while backup Michael Hutchinson has struggled.
3 Keys to the Game
Keep the kill going: Toronto scored a pair of power-play goals against Columbus in the Jackets' opener earlier in October. The Blue Jackets have been on a roll on the kill, allowing just one goal in the last five games, and have to keep it going to keep the Leafs' power play (26.9 percent) at bay.
Keep the chances down: The Maple Leafs can kill you in transition with their ability to move the puck, so continuing to possess the puck and not give up odd-man rushes is critical.
Keep it up: Columbus played two good games over the weekend and lost both in overtime, but there's not a ton the team has to change in its game. There has to be trust in the process that goals will come if the right things are being done, rather than taking risks.
Atkinson scored the lone Blue Jackets goal of the first game between the teams. … Columbus won its lone game in Toronto last year by a 4-2 score. … Oliver Bjorkstrand remains one point away from 100 in his career (46-53-99) while Riley Nash is two assists away from 100 in his career. … Nick Foligno is two games from playing his 500th contest in a Blue Jackets sweater, while David Savard is three away. … Savard, Seth Jones 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).
(Subject to change)
Gustav Nyquist - Pierre-Luc Dubois - Cam Atkinson
Nick Foligno - Alexander Wennberg - Oliver Bjorkstrand
Alexandre Texier - Boone Jenner - Josh Anderson
Emil Bemstrom - Riley Nash - Sonny Milano
Zach Werenski - Seth Jones
Markus Nutivaara - Dean Kukan
Vladislav Gavrikov - David Savard
Joonas Korpisalo (confirmed starter)
Scratches: Jakob Lilja, Dean Kukan, Scott Harrington
Roster Report: Kukan was deputized to go in for Murray on Saturday against the Islanders, as the latter missed the game with an upper-body injury that has him day-to-day. He should be a game-time decision in Toronto. Tortorella confirmed Anderson returns to the lineup, taking the spot of Jakob Lilja.