BLUE JACKETS (15-20-9) at STARS (15-14-12)
Thursday, 8:30 p.m. ET, American Airlines Center, Dallas
TV: Bally Sports Ohio, CBJ app, ESPN+
Radio: Eldorado Scioto Downs Blue Jackets radio network (97.1 The Fan flagship)
The most intriguing part of the rest of the season for the Blue Jackets might center on which young players impress down the stretch.
That could be someone like Patrik Laine, as the 22-year-old superstar has started to find his confidence and shot with three goals in the last two games. That could be someone like Alexandre Texier, the 21-year-old center who played a career high in minutes in Monday night's game vs. Chicago.
Or it could be someone like Josh Dunne, as the 22-year-old center is slated to make his NHL debut tonight when the Blue Jackets take on the Stars in Dallas.
Signed out of Clarkson University last month when the Golden Knights' season ended, the 6-4 center has had a whirlwind last few weeks. After signing, Dunne went to Cleveland of the AHL, where he scored two goals in seven games, and now finds himself not just called up to the big club but about to play at the world's highest level.
"I honestly wasn't sure," he said when asked if he imagined this a few weeks ago, when his college career in upstate New York came to a close. "I just wanted to play my game and work on my confidence down there (in Cleveland) and understand the pro game and just play the way I can play.
"Obviously, it's unbelievable that I'm here now, and I'm very excited to get going."
For Laine, the two-goal outburst -- including a goal of the year candidate for not just the team but in the league, his end-to-end rush that tied the game in the third period -- on Monday could be a sign that he's breaking out of a long scoring slump that included just one goal and four points in 22 games.
Getting the 22-year-old sniper back on track is key for a Blue Jackets team that has tried to figure out how to best utilize since he was acquired early this season in a trade with Winnipeg. The Finnish star has admitted his confidence has been lacking, but hopefully that will take a step forward after his recent goal-scoring success.
"We'll see the next game," Laine said in his usual deadpan. "Hopefully (the third-period goal) will give me some confidence to do that again. Usually, like I said before, good things happen when you take it to the net, and that was a good example."
Texier, meanwhile, skated 23:15 in the game, taking advantage of both his strong play and the penalty-filled game that relegated Max Domi to the bench. After four goals in the first seven games, Texier has not scored in 33 games since, but after suffering a dip in play, it's fair to say the Frenchman has been playing some of his best hockey at the NHL level in recent games.
"He was playing well," head coach John Tortorella said. "He was doing a lot of the checking. I tried to have him out there against (Patrick Kane) and (Alex) DeBrincat and whoever else they had there. Toward the end of the game, I wanted to make sure we got at least a point out of that game as the time is winding down, so he played a lot of minutes during that time."
Know the Foe
It's been a year of trials and tribulations for the Stars, who have been beset by injuries (Ben Bishop and Alexander Radulov are out for the year, while Tyler Seguin is yet to play), an early-season Covid-19 pause and even some postponed games because of a winter storm.
With everything that has happened, the Stars have battled through the adversity and are still in the playoff race, though they enter the game in sixth place in the Central Division, seven points behind Nashville but with three games in hand.
One of the biggest struggles for the Stars has been in overtime, as Dallas' 12 overtime losses are the most in the NHL, and in fact the Stars are the only team in the league with double digits in that category. Dallas is 4-2-2 in its last eight games as it tries to battle back into the mix in the Central and catch the red-hot Predators.
With Seguin out, Radulov limited to just 11 games and Roope Hintz also limited throughout the year, scoring has been an issue for the Stars, who are 18th in the league with 2.73 goals per game. Joe Pavelski has led the way all season and has 16 goals among his 38 points, including an NHL-best 11 power-play goals. Hintz (13-19-32 in 29 games) has been a point-per-game player when healthy, while 21-year-old Jason Robertson has been a breakout player with 12 goals and 29 points in 36 games, placing second in the NHL among rookies in goals and points.
Defensemen John Klingberg (6-21-27) and Miro Heiskanen (6-15-21) also add offense, while captain Jamie Benn has eight goals and 23 points in 37 games.
Defensively, the Stars have fared well, placing fifth in the league with 2.46 goals allowed per game. Goalies Anton Khudobin and Jake Oettinger have split time, with Khudobin 9-9-6 with a 2.34 GAA and .913 save percentage in 24 games, while the rookie Oettinger is 6-5-6 with a 2.29 GAA and .917 save percentage in 20 contests.
3 Keys to the Game
Finally stop Pavelski: The ageless wonder has been a CBJ killer this season, scoring four goals and adding four helpers in six games. Keeping the seventh-ranked Stars power play off the ice, where Pavelski has been impressive, is key.
Make it hard on the goalies: The Blue Jackets have 15 goals in six games this year vs. Dallas, 2.50 per game. In a few of them, Oettinger hasn't had much work, going 3-0-1 vs. Columbus this year with his lone shutout. The Jackets have to do more in front of the Dallas netminders.
Keep building confidence: The Jackets played like a confident bunch on Monday, and seeing production up and down the lineup would be big for a team auditioning for what's to come.
Scott Harrington will play in his 200th career game if he skates tonight. … Oliver Bjorkstrand leads the team with a 14-18-32 line this year. Cam Atkinson matched him on the goal-scoring front with his 14th goal Saturday, while Jack Roslovic became the first player on the team to reach 20 goals in the loss. … Atkinson is four points from 400 in his NHL career (212-184-396). ... Roslovic also has six points (2-4-6) in the last four games. ... Michael Del Zotto has scored in two of the last three games and is set to play in his 699th NHL game. … Tortorella has 670 career wins, two behind Mike Keenan for 12th place in NHL history. … Columbus has stopped 31 of 35 power-play chances (88.6 percent) in the last 12 games. … Both teams are 3-2-1 in the season series after Columbus had won all seven games between the teams in the last four seasons.
(Subject to change)
Oliver Bjorkstrand - Max Domi - Patrik Laine
Mikhail Grigorenko - Jack Roslovic - Cam Atkinson
Eric Robinson - Alexandre Texier - Zac Dalpe
Stefan Matteau - Josh Dunne - Kole Sherwood
Michael Del Zotto - Seth Jones
Vladislav Gavrikov - Scott Harrington
Dean Kukan - Andrew Peeke
Elvis Merzlikins (confirmed starter)
Scratches: Kevin Stenlund, Ryan MacInnis, Mikko Lehtonen, Gabriel Carlsson
Taxi squad: Nathan Gerbe, Gavin Bayreuther, 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: Tortorella said Dunne will make his debut, going in for Stenlund, while Peeke practiced with Kukan on Wednesday and will enter the lineup in place of Lehtonen. Merzlikins will ge the start in net.