BLUE JACKETS (11-12-4) vs. RANGERS (13-10-3)
Thursday, 7 p.m. ET, Nationwide Arena (FOX Sports Ohio, CBJ app, FOX Sports app, 97.1 The Fan)
BUY TICKETS (WBNS Big 10TV toy drive; Car flag giveaway courtesy of KIA for first 10,000 fans)
If Yogi Berra were to talk about the NHL standings, he'd probably utter one of his trademark turns of phrase.
Something along the lines of "It gets late early out there."
As most know, it can be difficult to make up ground in the NHL standings once you past a certain point. With 55 games still to go, the Blue Jackets aren't quite there, but they're starting to get close.
After two straight losses, the team is back under .500 -- "we're under water," head coach John Tortorella said after describing his team first as treading water -- and in need of a run of wins to get back into the mix in the Metropolitan Division and Eastern Conference.
Captain Nick Foligno said the Blue Jackets are acutely aware of where they stand.
"I think our team understands the situation we're in in the standings," he said after Tuesday night's 3-2 loss vs. Arizona. "I think we're working toward it. I think we've played some good hockey of late. It's finding that extra little push, that extra mile that you need to go in a game to get a win, and then start to build off that. We haven't seen that tidal wave going in that direction for us where we're winning games and we're feeling it."
Instead, the vibe often has gone the other direction. Since a 5-3-2 start that included earning points in seven of eight games, the Blue Jackets have been in a funk they just can't shake. The main culprit has been consistent scoring, or a lack thereof, as in the last eight games the Blue Jackets have scored five goals three times. In the other five games, Columbus has totaled just eight goals.
While the scoring chances total tracked by the team shows it's creating scoring opportunities -- and advanced stats models show a team that is creating more than it's giving up, even if it's not a prodigious amount either way -- at some point, chances have to become goals.
"If you're getting scoring chances, you can stay positive with that, but everybody in here is smart," center Pierre-Luc Dubois said. "Everybody knows it's a results league. You're not going to make the playoffs being the team with the most scoring chances.
"Every goalie is going to play well. Every team is going to defend well. Shots are great, but you have to score on a consistent basis. You can't just get an average or a bare minimum of scoring chances and expect five goals every game. You're going to have to go over that."
Such is the reality in which the Blue Jackets find themselves. While the schedule perhaps gives a little bit of hope here on the goal scoring front -- the next two opponents are 25th and 29th, respectively, in the NHL when it comes to scoring defense -- Columbus needs to keep playing the right way and start doing the little things that turn close losses into close wins.
"We have to figure out a way to bury (our chances) and execute," Foligno said. "That's what's going to get us back in the win column and get us there consistently, not win one, lose two. We have to win three or four in a row here to climb back in it. That's where that extra detail, whether it's on the offensive side, whether it's on the defensive side, understanding how we need to play, and then those pucks are going to start going in because we're going to be in the areas we need to be in to score goals."
Know the Foe
There's no getting around it: One of the major storylines of the game will be the return of Artemi Panarin to Columbus.
He was a star with the Blue Jackets, earning a franchise-record 87 points a season ago and adding 11 more in the team's 10-game playoff run. He's continued his high-scoring ways this year with a 12-21-33 line in 26 games including a 12-game point streak that ended late last month.
So yes, a lot of eyes will be on Panarin when he steps on the ice in Nationwide Arena. Yet for the team, the focus can't be on the storyline of playing Panarin; it has to be on shutting him down, as it would be for any foe.
"He's one of the top players in the National Hockey League," head coach John Tortorella said Wednesday. "I don't think, all the top players on these teams that come in including him, I don't think you totally stop them, you just try to contain them. It's no different with him. We all know he's one of the best players in the league. But you just can't get focused on the one guy, but you sure gotta try to contain him.
"I have a tremendous amount of respect for Bread and what he did for this organization. I would be remiss not to say something about that, but when it comes to tomorrow night, it's not about Bread and he played here, he left and all that. It's about trying to find our game and try to win a hockey game."
Panarin has keyed an offensive resurgence, though, for the young Rangers, who are 10th in the NHL with 3.23 goals per game. Linemate Ryan Strome has found a home in the Big Apple with a 6-17-23 line so far, while defenseman Tony DeAngelo (7-12-19) and Pavel Buchnevich (5-14-19) have also been key contributors along with Mika Zibanejad (6-9-15). Rookie defenseman Adam Fox and trade acquisition Jacob Trouba each add 14 points from the blue line. No. 2 overall pick Kaapo Kakko has a 6-5-11 line.
Defensively, the team has struggled, giving up 3.31 goals per game. Alexandar Georgiev is set to make his 11th start and 12th appearance of the season in net, and he's 6-4-1 with a 3.07 goals-against average and a .912 save percentage.
3 Keys to the Game
Score on the power play: The Rangers have been one of the NHL's worst teams in the kill with a percentage of 75.3, 27th in the league. The Blue Jackets have been hot, meanwhile, with the power play being a key part of recent wins.
Find the inspiration: Certainly, it might be easy to think about what might have been had Panarin stayed. But for a night, that can be a motivating factor in the Jackets' first meeting with their former teammate.
Don't cheat: Tortorella was upset by what he called some cheating to find offense against Arizona, which led to transition chances against. That can be killer against a Rangers that can score, especially with Panarin on the ice.
The game also marks the return of Rangers president of hockey operations John Davidson, who previously held the same job with the Blue Jackets. … There are a number of other ties between the organizations, including the fact Tortorella was once head coach in New York for parts of six seasons, coaching four players who have suited up in the Blueshirts this year. … Columbus has won three in a row vs. the Rangers and is 7-2-1 in the last 10 games of the series. Columbus is 3-0-1 in the last four games in Nationwide Arena. Foligno (3-1-4), Cam Atkinson (2-2-4), Pierre-Luc Dubois (2-2-4) and David Savard (2-2-4) all averaged a point per game in the four games. ... Joonas Korpisalo has a .916 save percentage in his last 11 starts. ... One game after playing in his 100th outing as a Blue Jacket, Riley Nash is expected to play in his 500th NHL game. ... Foligno is one point from 300 with the Blue Jackets.
(Subject to change)
Gustav Nyquist - Boone Jenner - Oliver Bjorkstrand
Nick Foligno - Alexandre Texier - Cam Atkinson
Sonny Milano - Pierre-Luc Dubois - Emil Bemstrom
Riley Nash - Alexander Wennberg - Josh Anderson
Dean Kukan - Seth Jones
Ryan Murray - David Savard
Vladislav Gavrikov - Andrew Peeke
Scratches: Eric Robinson, Scott Harrington, Zach Werenski (injured)
Roster Report: Peeke will make his NHL debut, going in for Harrington, while Korpisalo will return to the net. In addition, Bemstrom goes back into the lineup for Robinson.