There will be no playoff hockey for Columbus, so the last eight days of the campaign will be it. There will be more game days than off days in the schedule down the stretch, a stark change from the last three days, as Columbus has not played since Tuesday's 1-0 shootout win over Detroit that snapped a nine-game winless skid.
It was just the second time all season the Blue Jackets had three days between games, and it came at a bit of a weird time with just about everything on the season done and dusted. As a result, Wednesday was an off day, while team members faced a decision Thursday -- either an off-ice workout or an on-ice practice, with most of the team choosing the latter. Friday was a full-team practice, minus the "nicked up" Patrik Laine and Oliver Bjorkstrand, with the Jackets still putting in work to become a better team.
"We just go about our business until we're done," head coach John Tortorella said. "We're done in a week. We just keep practicing and go about a schedule that we would go about if we were still in it."
That meant working on arrivals into the offensive zone on Friday, then eventually breaking up for some small-area games meant to work on puck skills, something the team has done a lot of in the second half of the season with an eye on both improving but also keeping practice fresh and competitive.
There are only a few more chances to get on the ice this year as a team, and five more chances to try to enjoy a victory for the Jackets, something the team finally got to experience Tuesday after a three-week gap between victories.
"It feels good," Laine said postgame. "It's a good feeling. We've been playing some good hockey lately but haven't been able to get the dubs, so that was huge. We have to try to finish the season the right way and win these last five that we have."
Know the Foe
A third straight playoff appearances is in the cards for Carolina, but the Hurricanes want to add some more special touches to their campaign as they come down the stretch.
With 73 points in the first 50 games, not only does Carolina lead the Central Division, putting the Canes in position to win their first division title since the 2005-06 team won not just the Southeast Division but the Stanley Cup, but the team also has the most points in the league leaving the Presidents' Trophy within reach.
With points in nine straight (6-0-3), Carolina appears to be finishing strong and could be on the verge of something special.
"We're not satisfied," head coach Rod Brind'Amour said after a recent game. "We've got one goal in mind. We're all on that same page. ... I feel like we're on a mission here."
A relentless, hard-checking style and a mobile defense help lead the way, one reason the Canes are in the top 10 in the league in scoring offense (3.20 gpg, T-10th) and scoring defense (2.36 gpg, third). Excellent special teams also help, as Carolina has the NHL's best power play (27.2 percent) and third-best penalty kill (84.4 percent).
Sebastian Aho leads the way on the scoring front with 21 goals and 30 helpers for 51 points, but depth is the key to the Carolina attack with seven players above 30 points, and that doesn't even include Teuvo Teravainen, who just returned from injury that has kept him to a 3-8-11 line in 15 games. Vincent Trocheck adds a 17-22-39 line in 41 games, while Dougie Hamilton is among the top-scoring defensemen in the league with eight goals and 30 helpers for 38 points.
Also in the scoring mix and past the 30-point mark are captain Jordan Staal (16-21-37), dynamic young wingers Andrei Svechnikov (13-24-37) and Martin Necas (11-26-37), and veteran Nino Niederreiter (18-14-32).
In net, Petr Mrazek has gone back on the shelf with an injury, this time with a lower body injury, leaving the net to James Reimer (15-5-2/2.66/.906 in 22 games) and Ohio native Alex Nedeljkovic (13-4-3/1.94/.932 in 20 games).
3 Keys to the Game
Stay disciplined: Carolina's power play has scored on four of 14 tries (28.6 percent) vs. Columbus this year, so staying out of the box (even given the recent CBJ PK success) is key
Don't panic: When they're at their best, Carolina possesses the puck and hems you into your own zone. The key in those situations? Don't panic. If they happen, just work your way out of them, don't chase in the defensive zone.
A little more action, please: Merzlikins now has his chance to run with the No. 1 job to the end of the season, something he's wanted. Can he duplicate his standout 41-save shutout performance from Tuesday?
Oliver Bjorkstrand leads the team in all three major statistical categories this year with a 15-23-38 line plus three shootout goals in four chances. ... Cam Atkinson (14-17-31) and Jack Roslovic (10-20-30) follow, with the latter's mark a career high in points. … Atkinson is one point from 400 in his career (212-187-399). … Tortorella has 671 career wins, one behind Mike Keenan for 12th place in NHL history. … Columbus has stopped 46 of 51 power-play chances against (90.2 percent) in the last 20 games. … The Blue Jackets have taken half the points in the season series on the year, posting a 3-3-1 record. Columbus is 2-1-0 in Raleigh this year and 9-6-2 there since teams joined the Metropolitan Division in 2013-14.
Projected Lineup presented by Blue Technologies
(Subject to change)
Eric Robinson - Max Domi - Oliver Bjorkstrand
Stefan Matteau - Jack Roslovic - Emil Bemstrom
Liam Foudy - Alexandre Texier - Cam Atkinson
Nathan Gerbe - Ryan MacInnis - Mikhail Grigorenko
Michael Del Zotto - Seth Jones
Vladislav Gavrikov - Mikko Lehtonen
Gavin Bayreuther - Dean Kukan
Elvis Merzlikins (confirmed starter)
Scratches: Patrik Laine (illness), Zac Dalpe (injury), Kole Sherwood, Kevin Stenlund, Gabriel Carlsson, Scott Harrington, Andrew Peeke, Joonas Korpisalo (injury)
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 will not play after missing Friday's practice with an injury. He will be replaced by Bemstrom, who enters the lineup after missing 21 games with a lower-body injury.