As head coach John Tortorella has said, the margin for error for the depleted Columbus roster down the stretch is simply razor thin, one reason wins have been hard to come by.
"I think the past five or six games, I think we have played really well," Tortorella said after Saturday night's 2-1 overtime loss in Carolina. "We're not scoring a lot. One of the things that we need to improve at is when we do have odd-man rushes to get more out of them. We just don't. That hurts us a bit, but for the last little while, I think we've played some pretty good hockey."
That setback Saturday night against the Canes was in some ways an encapsulation of how things have gone down the stretch for the Jackets. Columbus did play some pretty good hockey -- at 5-on-5, the team had an edge of 2.61-1.67 in expected goals (a measure of shot quality/quantity) on Carolina -- but wasn't able to extend its 1-0 lead or score in the last 57 minutes of regulation or overtime despite those strong numbers.
But it was a game that showed the Jackets are still fighting, as they outplayed the team with the most points in the NHL. And with four games at home to finish things off starting tonight against Nashville, that's the kind of effort the Blue Jackets want to continue to bring.
"We're playing for each other, right?" forward Max Domi said. "That's what it's all about. There's a lot of pride in that locker room and it's been a tough year. What do we have, four games left? We're going to take it game by game like we have all year and we're going to empty the tank every single night.
"It's gonna be nice to finish the last four at home here in front of our fans. We want to give them something to cheer for and look forward to and feel good about ourselves going into a longer offseason than we would have liked. But we're in the situation now so we just have to make the most of every game and work hard and be a pro."
Know the Foe
Once on the wrong side of the playoff line and looking at a frustrating season with a 13-17-1 record, Nashville has turned it on with a 15-5-1 stretch that has put the Predators in the fourth and final playoff spot in the Central Division, though Dallas is nipping at the Preds' heels.
Nashville has outscore teams by an average of 3.29-2.19 in that span, with one of the keys the play of goaltender Juuse Saros. After a slow start, Saros has pushed himself into the mix for the Vezina Trophy with a 16-5-1 run over the last 23 games in which he has a 1.82 GAA and .945 save percentage. In those 23 games, he's allowed more than two goals just four times, and on the year, the Finnish goalie now has a 19-10-1 record, 2.28 GAA and .928 save percentage.
Even more impressive is that the Preds are doing it while banged up right now. Forwards Viktor Arvidsson (upper body), Nick Cousins (illness) and Mathieu Olivier (lower body) as well as defensemen Mark Borowiecki (upper body), Dante Fabbro (upper body) and Luca Sbisa (upper body) all missing the last game Saturday, a 1-0 overtime win against the Stars.
It's been a team effort for Nashville, whose leader scorer is perennial Norris Trophy contender Roman Josi (6-25-31). But while no Predators are in the top 100 in scoring in the league, 15 players have at least five goals and 17 have at least 10 points.
Filip Forsberg has continued to shine during an injury-plagued season, posting 11 goals and 29 points in 35 games, while Mikael Granlund (13 goals, 12 assists), Calle Jarnkrok (12 goals, 13 assists) and Arvidsson (10 goals, 15 assists) all have 25 points. Mattias Ekholm adds 22 points (6-16) from the blue line and youngster Eeli Tolvanen is coming on with an 11-10-21 line.
Former CBJ centers Ryan Johansen (5-13-18 in 44 games) and Matt Duchene (4-7-11 in 30 games) also chip in. In net, longtime goalie Pekke Rinne has settled into a backup role during Saros' hot streak, posting a 9-12-1/2.97/.902 mark this year.
3 Keys to the Game
Win special teams: Columbus doesn't draw a ton of penalties, but with the Preds 29th in the league in penalty kill (75.2 percent), perhaps a goal could be stolen there. Nashville also is 25th in power-play percentage (17.7 percent)
More Merzlikins: The CBJ goalie has a 1.87 GAA and .945 save percentage in his last six games, the kind of run he seems to put together when he's the No. 1.
Stick with it: Columbus has been playing some OK hockey but isn't getting the reward when it comes to goals. But that can turn if you can stay with it and keep battling.
Oliver Bjorkstrand leads the team in all three major statistical categories this year with a 15-24-39 line plus three shootout goals in four chances. ... Cam Atkinson is one point from 400 in his career (212-187-399), while Jack Roslovic is three from 100 (36-61-97). … Domi has posted 3-7-10 in his last 13 games played. … Bjorkstrand is slated to play in his 299th NHL game, all with Columbus. … Tortorella has 671 career wins, one behind Mike Keenan for 12th place in NHL history. … Columbus has stopped 47 of 52 power-play chances against (90.4 percent) in the last 21 games. … The Blue Jackets are 1-5-0 this season against Nashville but 1-1 in Nationwide Arena.
Projected Lineup presented by Blue Technologies
(Subject to change)
Eric Robinson - Max Domi - Oliver Bjorkstrand
Mikhail Grigorenko - Jack Roslovic - Emil Bemstrom
Liam Foudy - Alexandre Texier - Cam Atkinson
Patrik Laine - Zac Dalpe - Nathan Gerbe
Michael Del Zotto - Seth Jones
Vladislav Gavrikov - Mikko Lehtonen
Gavin Bayreuther - Dean Kukan
Elvis Merzlikins (confirmed starter)
Scratches: Ryan MacInnis, Stefan Matteau, Kole Sherwood, Kevin Stenlund, Gabriel Carlsson, Scott Harrington, Andrew Peeke, Joonas Korpisalo (inj)
Taxi squad: Adam Clendening, Daniil Tarasov, Cam Johnson
Injured reserve: Gus Nyquist (shoulder, out 5-6 months as of November), Zach Werenski (sports hernia, out for the season), Boone Jenner (broken finger, out six weeks as of April 7), Brandon Dubinsky (wrist, LTIR).
Roster report: Laine missed Saturday's game with illness but will return along with Dalpe, who missed Saturday's game after tweaking an injury in practice last Friday. Matteau and MacInnis come out of the lineup.