SABRES (24-18-6) at BLUE JACKETS (28-17-3)
Tuesday, 7 p.m., Nationwide Arena (FOX Sports Ohio, CBJ app, FOX Sports app, CD 102.5)
The second half of the season is here for the Columbus Blue Jackets.
It officially starts with tonight's home game vs. Buffalo, and with the team in the thick of the Metropolitan Division race, the stakes will rise all the way until the season ends the first week of April.
"It's the most important part of the season right here," defenseman Seth Jones said. "We have to be better. We did a pretty good job in the first half of the season in winning games and finding a way to win games. Hopefully our power play and our special teams can be better here down the stretch and help us propel ourselves forward into the playoffs."
So if the Blue Jackets have to be better, where can they be?
Here's a few spots that will be points of emphasis down the stretch.
Video: Dubois is pumped his dad is in town
Power play: This has been the bugaboo all season, and with Columbus currently 27th in the NHL at 14.6 percent, you can't help but think about how pumping in a few man-advantage goals can help this team rise up the standings.
Columbus currently has 21 goals in 144 chances. If the team was at 20 percent - which would be 17th in the league, or just about league average - it would have 29 power-play goals. In a sport in which most games come down to the end, you can imagine how eight extra goals would help the cause.
The hiring of Martin St. Louis to serve as a consultant is the team's latest effort to jump-start things, and early returns have been good.
"We're not playing to the level that he knows we're capable of, but he showed a lot of clips of when we were successful, what we were doing," All-Star Cam Atkinson said of the team's first meeting about the power play with St. Louis. "It's the little things. We have the personnel, it's just about putting it all together again and feeling confidence.
"Your best players are out there for a reason. When your plays are there, make them. I think we were moving the puck around really well (Monday). We weren't overpassing, which I think is what we were doing before instead of looking at the coverage and getting between the coverage and making the reads."
Video: Hanni is excited to be back
More from Wennberg: The Blue Jackets have one of the top-scoring lines in hockey. They have a grind line that can provide some goal-scoring as well.
But Columbus could really use another line that can put goals in the net consistently, and the hope is Wennberg centers that unit. The 2014 first-round pick had 59 points two seasons ago but 35 last year and 19 this year, including a single goal.
When asked Monday about Wennberg's production, head coach John Tortorella pointed out the Swede's game away from the puck has been sterling, and he's been one of the team's best penalty killers if not the best. But if Columbus is going to reach its peak as a team, it needs some offense out of the center.
"I don't want him to be a checker," Tortorella said. "I don't want his No. 1 role to be as a penalty killer. We need to add to that … It's trying to get him to have some success. I don't think he has a lot of confidence. He hasn't had a lot of success. He's had some good games here in the past month. It's been a little erratic, but there's been some good games. We can see what he can do. It's trying to get it to where it's consistent that he feels really good about himself."
Goaltending consistency: Columbus right now has a team save percentage of .900, good for 19th in the league. Both Sergei Bobrovsky and Joonas Korpisalo have had hot streaks, and the team knows each can get the job done. But the numbers don't lie as far as that on the whole, the Jackets have been in the bottom half of the league in save percentage. Moving that up a few ticks would be ideal.
Bobrovsky will get the start against Buffalo, his second in a row after he started the first-half finale at Minnesota.
Video: Torts with a Panarin update
Cam And Seth's Excellent Adventure
NHL All-Stars Jones and Atkinson returned to the Blue Jackets on Monday and talked to the media about their experience at the event, which their Metropolitan Division team won Saturday thanks to a combined five goals from the two Blue Jackets.
Atkinson was on the ice while Jones missed practice, the result of a ding that came when he slid hard into the post while earning a penalty shot in the final vs. The Central Division.
Here are some quotes from the two about their trip and the experience.
Jones on hearing some chirps for the Metro's defensive intensity in a game not often known for it: "We got mixed reviews. My team talked about it before the game, we wanted to make a conscious effort to actually try."
Jones on his penalty shot attempt, in which he failed to get a clean shot off: "On Friday, I think I was 3-for-4 (on breakaways) in the goalie save streak thing, and I was feeling it pretty good. And then yeah... I think I used all the magic on Friday. Saturday didn't go so hot."
Atkinson on taking his 6-month-old son Declan to the game: "He was an absolute rock star. He didn't cry on the flight at all. We kept him on the schedule we have here so he was asleep by 4 there and waking up at 4, but I had my mother-in-law there babysitting. So she was the real rock star."
Atkinson on watching Kendall Coyne Schofield's blazing fastest skater lap, in which she competed before Atkinson: "I was pretty nervous. I didn't know that (Blue Jackets assistant coach Kenny McCudden) has been working with her for a long time, but it's great to see women's hockey shine and do their thing and compete. I'm just happy that I didn't finish last."
Know The Foe
Once the story of the league with a 10-game win streak in November, the Sabres enter the game on the outside looking in as far as the playoff race. Buffalo has 54 points and is fifth in the Atlantic Division, leaving the Sabres four points behind the final wild card spot.
The team's numbers are middle-of-the-pack across the board, with the Sabres 21st in scoring (2.85 goals per game), 17th in goals against (2.98 gpg), 21st in power play (17.0 percent), ninth in penalty killing (82.2 percent) and almost even on shot share.
Jack Eichel as expected leads the way for the Sabres with 16 goals, 36 assists and a team-high 52 points in 45 games. Offseason acquisition Jeff Skinner is having a career year with a team-high 30 goals thus far, a total that's tied for second in the NHL behind Alexander Ovechkin's 37. Sam Reinhart has added an 11-33-44 line. On defense, Rasmus Ristolainen plays more than 25 minutes per game and has a 5-25-30 line, while No. 1 overall pick Rasmus Dahlin has five goals and 21 helpers and is plus-6 in his rookie campaign.
In net, Carter Hutton has started 30 games and the veteran seems to have found a home in Buffalo with a 14-14-3 record, 2.75 goals-against average and .912 save percentage. Linus Ullmark is 10-4-3 with a 2.93 GAA and .914 save percentage.
Jones practiced Tuesday morning and said he should play in Tuesday's game despite missing Monday's practice. ... Winger Markus Hannikainen han't played since Jan. 8 because of an elbow inury but returned to practice Sunday and will enter the lineup vs. the Sabres in place of the injured Boone Jenner. ... Columbus has won six of its last eight vs. Buffalo including four straight at Nationwide Arena.
Blue Jackets Projected Lineup
Artemi Panarin - Pierre-Luc Dubois - Cam Atkinson
Nick Foligno - Alexander Wennberg - Josh Anderson
Oliver Bjorkstrand - Lukas Sedlak - Anthony Duclair
Brandon Dubinsky - Riley Nash - Markus Hannikainen
Seth Jones - Zach Werenski
Markus Nutivaara - Ryan Murray
Scott Harrington - David Savard
Scratched: Mark Letestu, Dean Kukan