BLUE JACKETS (24-16-8) vs. DEVILS (17-23-7)
Saturday, 7 p.m. ET, Nationwide Arena (FOX Sports Ohio, CBJ app, FOX Sports app, 97.1 The Fan)
Make no mistake about it, the Blue Jackets' victory Thursday night over Carolina was a big win.
It came against a Metropolitan Division rival and allowed the team to stay red hot, with 13 wins and 17 games with points in the last 19 contests. On top of that, it allowed the team to jump back onto the right side of the playoff bar for the time being, and it made what was a successful road trip last week stand up as it was a second straight victory since coming home to Nationwide Arena.
There were also great individual performances, from another victory for Elvis Merzlikins to the first goal for captain Nick Foligno since Nov. 29 to the two-point return to action for Cam Atkinson after nearly a month on the shelf.
"It's a big win for our club," Foligno said afterward. "It makes the past two stand, and we're moving up in the standings."
At the same time, anyone who watched it knows it wasn't the prettiest effort out of the Blue Jackets. Carolina had a decided advantage in shot attempts - the Canes had 34 shots on goal compared to just 31 shot attempts for Columbus - and scoring chances in the game.
Yet Columbus stuck with it despite being outplayed territorially and was able to get the win.
"Elvis played outstanding again," Foligno said. "Guys were blocking shots, our D, our forwards. It was more a grind, but we got it done. You gotta have to find a way sometimes in a league that some nights you feel great and win, and some nights you don't -- you feel great and you don't win. Tonight, we didn't quite have our offensive punch but found a way to win with a real solid defense."
Head coach John Tortorella said he viewed the game as an "aberration" as far as how the Blue Jackets spent much of the game chasing the Hurricanes. Sometimes, the head coach says, you just have to credit the opposition.
"Last night, we chased them around and tried to catch up to them, and we couldn't," Tortorella said Friday. "I sit here last night and tell you guys I'm not sure what happened -- maybe give them a little credit.
"They're fast, they're quick, they pressure. We can critique our guys about not making plays, but maybe they were just that quick and we didn't have chances to make plays. Sometimes you have to give respect to the other team. There's some pretty good teams out there, and that's one of them."
Things will be a little different when New Jersey comes in Saturday considering the Devils' place in the standings. The Devils don't have the same high-pressure game as the Hurricanes, but the Blue Jackets need to keep putting results on the board with three games left before the All-Star break, and no win can be taken for granted.
"We're in a wild card spot now, so we just have to keep building up here before the break," defenseman Zach Werenski said. "We have three more (games), so we have to get more points."
Know the Foe
The Devils bring up the rear of the Metropolitan Division and will again be in the running for the top pick for the third time in four years as a season of promise has fallen by the wayside.
Coach John Hynes has already been fired -- and ended up in Nashville -- while a late-December hot streak under new coach Alain Nasreddine has fallen off a bit, as the Devils have lost five of seven heading into Nationwide Arena.
Also gone is Taylor Hall, as the standout forward was traded to Arizona as it became clear the Devils rebuild -- which included the drafting of No. 1 overall pick Jack Hughes and the additions of PK Subban, Wayne Simmonds and Nikita Gusev -- just weren't going to work out in the standings. While New Jersey has struggled to score, placing 25th in the NHL with 2.64 goals per game, the 3.49 tallies per game the Devils allow places the team 30th in the league.
The defense as a whole has struggled and the goaltending has been abysmal, with Cory Schneider sent down at midseason but recently recalled despite an 0-5-1 record, 4.42 goals-against average and .859 save percentage. Mackenzie Blackwood has been banged up of late but has been the No. 1 for most of the year, going 14-12-6 with a 2.97 GAA and .905 save percentage. Louis Domingue has filled in and is 3-5-0 with a 3.66 GAA and .883 save percentage, but he left the last game Thursday with a lower-body injury.
Up front, leading scorer Kyle Palmieri has 16 goals, 15 assists in 31 points this year but is out for the time being with a foot injury. Nico Hischier, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 draft, will take his place in the All-Star Game and has a 12-17-29 line, with nine goals and 15 points coming in the last 19 games. Gusev adds eight goals and 28 points, while Blake Coleman leads the team with 19 goals among his 27 points.
Simmonds has five goals and 19 points this year, Hughes has six goals and 17 points, and Subban has struggled with a 6-5-11 line and minus-13 rating.
3 Keys to the Game
Get the forecheck going: Columbus was unable to do so against Carolina because the Blue Jackets didn't really have the puck, but this offers a better opportunity to assert themselves in the offensive zone.
Everybody in: The Blue Jackets have been finding different players to score goals of late, a trend that has been a key to recent victories.
Pay attention: This could be viewed as a bit of a trap game given the Devils' struggles, but New Jersey has the players to take advantage if Columbus isn't on its game.
Just six NHL teams have points in at least eight of the last 10 games, and five are in the Eastern Conference -- Boston, Tampa Bay, Toronto, Pittsburgh and the Blue Jackets. St. Louis is the other. … Merzlikins has stopped 281 of 296 shots (.949 save percentage) in the past nine games while going 7-2-0. … Cam Atkinson has six goals in his last nine games and a 6-3-9 line in his last 10. … Alexander Wennberg has notched a 2-5-7 line in the past nine games. … The Jackets are 17-7-5 this year vs. Eastern foes. … The Blue Jackets have outscored foes 25-11 in their last eight home games while going 8-1-1. … The Jackets have won eight in a row against the Devils including four in a row in Columbus. The Blue Jackets took a 5-1 decision over the Devils at home on Dec. 21.
(Subject to change)
Gustav Nyquist - Pierre-Luc Dubois - Emil Bemstrom
Nathan Gerbe - Alexander Wennberg - Cam Atkinson
Eric Robinson - Riley Nash - Nick Foligno
Jakob Lilja - Boone Jenner - Kevin Stenlund.
Zach Werenski - Seth Jones
Vladislav Gavrikov - David Savard
Scott Harrington - Markus Nutivaara
Scratches: Sonny Milano, Adam Clendening, Joonas Korpisalo (injury)
Roster Report: The Blue Jackets used the same lines in practice Friday as the third period of Thursday's game. Whether Milano enters the lineup remains to be seen, with Tortorella speaking to the media pregame rather than in the morning.