BLUE JACKETS (44-30-4) at SABRES (31-37-10)
Sunday, 6 p.m., KeyBank Arena, Buffalo (FOX Sports Ohio, CBJ app, FOX Sports app, 97.1 The Fan)
Looking at the past four games for the Blue Jackets, it would be hard to argue the team isn't playing its best hockey of the year.
In that 4-0 win streak, Columbus has outscored its foes -- two of whom will be playoff teams and a third the Jackets are competing with for a postseason spot -- by a total of 20-4.
To reach that type of dominant numbers, the team has to be playing well in all phases, and the Jackets are doing just that.
Offensively, the confidence has returned and a number of players are in the midst of hot streaks. Defensively, the number of odd-man rushes and rebound chances have dwindled, and the team is playing with good sticks and taking away scoring chances from the other team. And in net, Sergei Bobrovsky has been nothing short of outstanding of late.
When everyone contributes, it's hard not to have fun playing hockey, and that's where the Blue Jackets are going into tonight's game vs. Buffalo after the 5-2 win at Nashvile on Saturday night.
"I know guys love to contribute," said center Matt Duchene, who has five assists in the last three games. "Winning games is more fun when you feel like you have a part in it, and tonight and (Thursday vs. Montreal) is one of those games where I feel like everyone has had a big part in those games. That's great for morale, and that helps everyone keep going and playing well."
When head coach John Tortorella was asked if he sees his team playing with a swagger since the win streak began, he agreed. He then went on to explain why exactly he thinks that is.
"I tell, you a big part of our game that I think has really helped us is we're playing in fives," Tortorella said. "I think we're coming out of our end zone and defending really well in our end zone because we're in the area, supporting each other. Forwards aren't leaving. We're really close together, and I think we're doing the same thing on the forecheck.
"I thought we forechecked really well tonight because we're close and we're supporting each other. That's really important to having the puck and stopping teams from getting pucks to the net."
So how could the team go from a three-game losing skid, including a listless 4-1 loss at Edmonton that seemed to put the Jackets' playoff hopes in critical condition, to playing its best hockey in the span of less than a week?
"I don't know," Seth Jones said.
Then again, maybe he did.
"We're just playing hockey," Jones went on to say. "(Edmonton) definitely was a low point, and we had some honest discussion about where we are. I though we handled ourselves pretty well from there. Those couple of days in Vancouver away from the rink helped us regroup and understand where we're at and what we need to do to be successful.
"Everyone is on board, and we had to make sure everyone was all-in. You're seeing the result of that. We're just playing free hockey and playing together, playing for each other."
With four games left in the regular season, the ball is in the Jackets' court. Columbus has the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference thanks to a tiebreaker over Montreal, and the Jackets also have a game in hand going into Buffalo. Metropolitan Division rival Carolina is just a point ahead, and the Canes take on Pittsburgh on Sunday.
Columbus, Carolina and Montreal all won games Saturday, and the Jackets must continue to play their best hockey to clinch a franchise-record third consecutive playoff berth.
"Everybody else wins tonight, so we have to keep it up," Tortorella said. "We certainly feel good about ourselves, but we have a tough game against Buffalo. They got spanked on the island 5-1. They'll be ready to play tomorrow. We just need to get ready for our next game."
Know the Foe
As Tortorella said, Buffalo enters the game coming off a 5-1 loss Saturday to the Islanders, and the Sabres have been in a free fall.
Since the end of their 10-game winning streak earlier this season that put the team at 17-6-2, Buffalo is 14-31-8, and the Sabres have won just one of their last 14 games and haven't been victorious in regulation since Feb. 23. The Jackets have to be careful, though, as the Sabres' last four wins are against the Islanders, Penguins, Capitals and Blues -- all playoff teams. It will be the eighth straight season in which Buffalo does not take part in playoff hockey.
There isn't much the team does well, as the Sabres are outscored 3.31-2.65 per game, though the special teams (17th in power play, 18th in penalty kill) are at least average. 5-on-5 has been a disaster, as the team has been outscored 176-144.
Up front, Buffalo is led by franchise player Jack Eichel (27-49-76) and 37-goal scorer Jeff Skinner, but they aren't getting much in the way of help. Sam Reinhart has 20 goals and 62 points, but only one other forward -- Conor Sheary (13-19-32) -- has at least 30 points.
The two Rasmuses provide some scoring depth on defense. Rookie Rasmus Dahlin has had a solid first season, as the No. 1 overall pick in last summer's draft has eight goals and 33 assists for 41 points. Rasmus Ristolainen also adds five goals and 39 points, but he's an NHL-worst minus-42 and has been on the ice for 119 goals against, most in the NHL. He has missed the last two games with illness.
Keys to the Game
Go for the jugular: Buffalo has pretty much punted on its season at this point, but the Sabres have beaten some playoff-bound teams down the stretch. Columbus has to jump on Buffalo early and not let the team have any confidence.
5-on-5 dominance: Columbus choked the life out of Nashville at 5-on-5, and Buffalo is one of the worst 5-on-5 teams in the NHL. The Jackets have to keep the strong play going.
Have energy: Like most teams, Columbus hasn't been great on the second night of back-to-backs, going 5-6-3. The travel is a challenge, but Buffalo is in a similar boat, so there's no excuses.
The teams have split the first two games of the season series to this point, and Columbus has won four of the five season series 2-1-0 since joining the Eastern Conference in 2013-14. … The Jackets have scored four or more goals in 36 of their 78 contests (46.2 percent; 242 goals overall) and are on pace to break the franchise record for most goals in a single season (247 in 2016-17). … Boone Jenner is one point from 200 in his NHL career. … Among hot Blue Jackets, David Savard has scored in consecutive games for the second time in his career, Oliver Bjorkstrand has scored in four consecutive games, and Artemi Panarin has a 2-5-7 line in his last four games.
Blue Jackets Projected Lineup
Subject to change
Artemi Panarin - Pierre-Luc Dubois - Cam Atkinson
Ryan Dzingel - Matt Duchene - Josh Anderson
Boone Jenner - Alexander Wennberg - Oliver Bjorkstrand
Brandon Dubinsky - Riley Nash - Nick Foligno
Zach Werenski - Seth Jones
Markus Nutivaara - David Savard
Dean Kukan - Scott Harrington
Scratched: Markus Hannikainen, Lukas Sedlak, Eric Robinson, Adam McQuaid, Adam Clendening, Keith Kinakid, Elvis Merzlikins
Roster Report: McQuaid did not make the trip after taking a high hit vs. Montreal on Thursday. Clendening was called up in his stead.