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PREVIEW: Columbus looks to end its losing skid in Florida

Blue Jackets are battling to finish strong as they take on the Panthers

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com
BLUE JACKETS (15-23-9) at PANTHERS (29-12-5) 

Tuesday, 7 p.m. ET, BB&T Center, Sunrise 

TV: Bally Sports OhioCBJ app 

Radio: Eldorado Scioto Downs Blue Jackets radio network (97.1 The Fan flagship) 

For the Blue Jackets, the reality is this isn't all that fun at the moment. 

In the NHL, the most fun a player can have is when a team is winning games, lots of them, and that's the opposite of how things are going for the Blue Jackets. Columbus has won just two of its last 15 games, including an 0-5-1 mark in the last six, and the team is now tied with Detroit for last place in the Central Division. 

Obviously, the Blue Jackets have been gutted by trades (Nick Foligno, David Savard, Riley Nash) and injuries (Zach Werenski, Boone Jenner, Gustav Nyquist, Emil Bemstrom) in recent weeks, which makes it hard to compete at the moment. At the same time, no number of excuses makes it easier on a professional athlete to handle the kind of stretch the Jackets are in right now. 

"I know some people might think we've given up, but we're still playing for pride and jobs and we're getting assessed," forward Zacl Dalpe said. "We're all competitive for a reason. We're all at this level for a reason. I don't like losing and I know nobody else does. I think If we stay the course with what we got and keep pushing, I know it's easier said than done but I think that's something we have to do." 

The latest setback was Monday night's 4-2 loss against Florida, though there were more consistent and good minutes turned in than over the weekend in a pair of losses in Dallas by a combined 9-2 score. Columbus got off to a good start and pushed in the third for the tying goal, but just couldn't find it against a Panthers team competing for a division title. 

"It's bad because we lose, honestly, but I see the great effort," goalie Elvis Merzlikins said. "After a couple of trades we did, we didn't give up. We are still fighting, and I am very sure the win is going to come son. Today, the last period, we definitely didn't give up. I think we played great." 

Given some younger players in the lineup, there will be mistakes, but what the Blue Jackets are looking for is energy, effort and improvement down the stretch. 

"We have been talking about each and every game, how we are going to play, how we want to play," head coach John Tortorella said. "As far as whether we're in the race or out of the race, we go game to game as far as what the expectations are and what parts of our game have been good, which parts of our game have been bad, where we need to improve. We are constantly doing that." 

Know the Foe  

The big news for Florida tonight could be the debut of goalie Spencer Knight, as head coach Joel Quenneville said there's a good chance the Boston College product goes into the net for his first NHL game. 

Knight, 20, won gold with Team USA at the World Juniors this past January, and the 2019 first-round draft pick (13th overall) is yet to play a pro game at any level after two years at BC resulted in 39 wins in 54 games and a .932 save percentage. 

He'll likely go in for a Florida team battling Carolina and Tampa at the top of the Central Division standings, as the Panthers are tied with the Hurricanes atop the division with 63 points, though the Canes have two games in hand.  

The Panthers remain one of the top offensive clubs in the NHL, scoring 3.17 goals per game (3.86 vs. Columbus) to place 10th in the league, but the biggest improvement has come defensively as the Panthers allow just 2.67 goals per game.  

Florida currently is missing two of its top players, as defenseman Aaron Ekblad (11-11-22 in 35 games) is out with a leg fracture and Carter Verhaeghe (17-18-35 in 42 games) is out with an upper-body injury, while defenseman MacKenzie Weegar (seven points vs. CBJ in six games) did not play Monday because of a UBI.  

The Panthers also were active at the deadline, trading for forwards Sam Bennett (who scored his first Florida goal Monday night) and Lucas Wallmark and defenseman Brandon Montour as well as signing Nikita Gusev.  

Aleksander Barkov continues to lead the way offensively with more than a point per game, posting an 18-27-45 line in 40 games. Jonathan Huberdeau also has 46 points in as many games thanks to 15 goals and 31 assists. Veteran Patric Hornqvist has 14 goals -- eight on the power play -- and 31 points, while Frank Vatrano has 17 tallies and Wennberg 11. 

3 Keys to the Game  

Test the rookie: Knight is yet to see rubber in any pro game, so the goal has to be to get through the Panthers defense and pepper him early. 

Limit chances: You'll never totally stop Florida from getting chances, and the Panthers throw the puck at the net with 34.1 shots on goal per game, including more than 30 in each game this year vs. CBJ. But limiting the transition and high-danger chances is the goal.  

Youthful exuberance: It might be tough for the team playing its eighth back-to-back in nine games, but that's where young energy can make an impact.  

Of Note 

Oliver Bjorkstrand leads the team with a 15-19-34 line this year. Cam Atkinson is second on the team in goals (14) and points (29), while Jack Roslovic is the first player on the team to reach 20 assists. … Atkinson is four points from 400 in his NHL career (212-186-398). ... Roslovic also has seven points (3-4-7) in the last seven games. … Patrik Laine has an 8-9-17 line in 12 career games vs. Florida. ... Tortorella has 670 career wins, two behind Mike Keenan for 12th place in NHL history. … Columbus has stopped 37 of 41 power-play chances against (90.2 percent) in the last 16 games. … The Blue Jackets have tallied first in 28 of 47 games. … The Jackets have just one win in seven games in the season series (Florida is 6-0-1; Columbus 1-4-2), a massive turnaround; Florida had won just 10 of 33 games ever vs. Columbus before the season. 

Projected Lineup presented by Blue Technologies 

(Subject to change) 

Oliver Bjorkstrand - Jack Roslovic - Cam Atkinson

Stefan Matteau - Alexandre Texier - Patrik Laine

Eric Robinson - Kevin Stenlund - Zac Dalpe

Ryan MacInnis - Josh Dunne - Kole Sherwood

Michael Del Zotto - Seth Jones

Vladislav Gavrikov - Mikko Lehtonen

Gavin Bayreuther - Dean Kukan

Joonas Korpisalo (confirmed starter) 

Elvis Merzlikins

Scratches: Max Domi, Mikhail Grigorenko, Gabriel Carlsson, Scott Harrington, Andrew Peeke

Taxi squad: Nathan Gerbe, Cliff Pu, Adam Clendening, Cam Johnson

Injured reserve: Gus Nyquist (shoulder, out 5-6 months as of November), Zach Werenski (sports hernia, out for the season), Emil Bemstrom (lower body, rehabbing with a timetable TBD), Boone Jenner (broken finger, out six weeks as of April 7), Brandon Dubinsky (wrist, LTIR). 

Roster report: Columbus will make just one change to the skater lineup, with Kukan going in for Peeke, while Korpisalo will get the start after Merzlikins took the first game in the back-to-back.

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