BLUE JACKETS (17-14-6) at CAPITALS (26-7-5)
Friday, 7 p.m. ET, Capital One Arena, Washington DC (FOX Sports Ohio, CBJ app, FOX Sports app, 97.1 The Fan)
The Blue Jackets did a lot of good work over the last two weeks of the pre-Christmas slate to save their season.
Head coach John Tortorella discussed the stretch with his team. As the Blue Jackets got off to a start that included just 11 wins in the first 29 games, things were teetering on a bit of a brink. A losing record in the last eight games before the holiday would mean a difficult reality as the team reconvened today in Washington.
"We did talk a few weeks ago about using these couple of weeks before Christmas as a stretch that could put us in a good spot, at least trying to get back on it, or are we in trouble?" Tortorella said. "I think they've handled themselves very well here."
To say the least. Columbus finished the last eight games before the mandated three-day Christmas break with points in all eight, including wins in six of those games for 14 of a possible 16 points. While the Blue Jackets are still looking up at a potential playoff berth, they have at least given themselves a chance to make noise.
"We've been up and down all season, winning games, losing games," goaltender Joonas Korpisalo said. "Losing more than winning games. It sucks when you go through that stuff, but finally we got it (turned around), and I think everyone can see that everyone is on the same page. Even through the injuries, too there's guys going in like (Nathan) Gerbe and (Kevin) Stenlund scoring goals. It's huge for us."
But the return to the ice tonight in Washington begins another key stretch. Columbus visits our nation's capital with eight players representing more than $25 million in salary on injured reserve. While Sonny Milano could return soon after practicing Monday on Long Island, and a number of other players could be starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to injuries, this will still be a severely shorthanded team for the next two weeks or so.
While the injuries haven't hurt the Blue Jackets on the ice yet - in fact, they may have helped, with the remaining veterans grabbing the bull by the horns from a production standpoint and the youngsters adding energy - at some point, getting to the point where the team's regulars are able to return with postseason hopes still intact will be huge.
So can Columbus keep the magic going over the coming weeks?
"I actually have no idea," defenseman Vladislav Gavrikov said. "We'll see."
Know the Foe
The Capitals will need no introduction to the Blue Jackets or their fans considering these teams played in the district Dec. 9 before a return engagement at Nationwide Arena a week after that. Columbus won both of those games, 5-2 on the road and 3-0 at home, extending their master of the Capitals to a 5-1-0 record over the past two seasons.
Maybe there's something about the Caps that brings the best out of the Blue Jackets, but at the same time, it's not like Columbus can just roll the pucks out there and win. This is still a Washington team that leads the league in points, has an eight-game cushion in the Metropolitan Division and is second in the NHL in scoring with 3.53 goals per game.
The usual suspects are still the usual suspects, as names like Ovechkin, Backstrom, Oshie and Carlson lead the way. Defenseman John Carlson leads the team and league defensemen and is seventh in the league overall in scoring with a 13-35-48 line. Alex Ovechkin 23 goals among his 36 points place him fourth in the NHL in tallies, while Backstrom (8-19-27 in 30 games) and Oshie (14-12-26) as well as Tom Wilson (12-14-26) are still key pieces. Youth is also being served, with Evgeny Kuznetsov with 12 goals and 21 assists for 33 points and Jakub Vrana adding a 15-16-31 line.
In net, Braden Holtby is the No. 1 guy in net as he's been for the better part of a decade and has a 17-5-4 record, 2.87 goals-against average and .907 save percentage, with two of his five losses coming to Columbus. Backup Ilya Samsonov is 9-2-1 with a 2.39 GAA and .914 save percentage.
Another strength of the Caps is the penalty kill with the team second in the NHL at 84.9 percent, while the power play checks in at 20.9 percent, solid but just 13th in the league despite the presence of Ovechkin.
3 Keys to the Game
Keep it rolling: The Blue Jackets' recent run of success has been marked by confident play with the puck, and Columbus has looked comfortable in all situations against the Capitals. That has to continue.
Weather the storm: The Caps are going to have their moments; as the best top in the league in points, they usually do. The Blue Jackets have to keep their wits about them when Washington is surging.
Four lines: A key of late has been the Jackets' ability to roll all four lines even in tight situations - and even amid the ridiculous run of injuries. There can't be passengers against an opponent like the Caps.
Columbus is 6-1-2 on Dec. 27 in its last nine tries. … Korpisalo leads the NHL in wins since Nov. 15 with 11. … Gavrikov has goals in two straight games and is plus-10 in his last 10 games. … Dubois is in the midst of a four-game point streak (2-4-6) and has eight points in his last six games (2-6-8, +6). … Gus Nyquist has a 2-6-8 line in his past eight games and is plus-9 in that stretch.
(Subject to change)
Alexandre Texier - Pierre-Luc Dubois - Eric Robinson
Gustav Nyquist - Boone Jenner - Kevin Stenlund
Nick Foligno - Alexander Wennberg - Nathan Gerbe
Jakob Lilja - Riley Nash - Ryan MacInnis
Zach Werenski - Seth Jones
Vladislav Gavrikov - David Savard
Gabriel Carlsson - Dean Kukan
Joonas Korpisalo (confirmed starter)
Scratches: Sonny Milano (injury), Scott Harrington (illness), Adam Clendening
Roster Report: The only lineup change for Columbus comes on defense, where Harrington is out with illness. Carlsson goes into the lineup in his place. Despite practicing earlier this week in New York, Milano remains out, Tortorella said