WASHINGTON, D.C. - One game into the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Blue Jackets are already being tested up front.
Specifically, their center depth is under the spotlight with Alexander Wennberg missing practice Saturday and doubtful to play against the Washington Capitals on Sunday at Capital One Arena in Game 2 of a series in the Eastern Conference First Round.
Rookie forward Sonny Milano will draw into the lineup and make his Stanley Cup Playoffs debut, likely replacing Wennberg, who's day-to-day with an upper-body injury stemming from an illegal hit by Capitals forward Tom Wilson in Game 1 on Thursday.
Is Milano ready for playoff hockey in the NHL?
"We'll find out," Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella said. "He's playing. He still scares the [heck] out of me in a lot of different situations in a game, but he's a guy, another guy, that can make something out of nothing and score a big goal for you."
Based off at practice, Milano will start out skating at left wing on the third line. He'll play with veteran center Brandon Dubinsky and right wing Josh Anderson, who was assessed a game misconduct late in the first period of Game 1 for an illegal hit on Capitals defenseman Michal Kempny.
Dubinsky is returning to center after starting Game 1 at a wing position on the fourth line, where he shared some of the center responsibilities with veteran Mark Letestu - who will continue centering the fourth group.
Captain Nick Foligno will get the first crack at replacing Wennberg on a line with rejuvenated forward Boone Jenner and veteran Thomas Vanek.
"I'm looking forward to playing with them," said Foligno, who started out centering the third line in Game 1. "It's fun to play with those guys. Obviously, they're playing really well right now. I'm just going to go do my thing with them and hopefully we'll have the same success."
Jenner, Wennberg and Vanek were a formidable combination in the final 17 games of the regular season and then combined to score the Blue Jackets' first goal in their 4-3 comeback victory in overtime of Game 1 on Thursday.
They were put together in the third game after Vanek was acquired in a trade Feb. 26 with the Vancouver Canucks, and the trio grew to be a consistent second line behind the top group of Artemi Panarin, rookie center Pierre-Luc Dubois and Cam Atkinson.
Now, the Jackets must hope Jenner and Vanek have similar results playing with Foligno. Tortorella is also giving Dubinsky another good opportunity to spark his game.
"I think he's finding his game," Tortorella said. "I watch him on tape and there's a couple times he gets the puck, I still think he can skate with it. He tries to get rid of it sometimes. That shows you there's still a lack of confidence in his game, but I think as he's gone along here, he's getting better."
Milano has improved this season, as well.
Starting out, defensive concerns eventually prompted him to be sent to the Cleveland Monsters of the American Hockey League. He bounced up and down between Cleveland a few times, but eventually started playing more sound away from the puck.
It's still not up to par with the level of defense Tortorella prefers, but Milano's offensive upside helps negate his liabilities. He had 14 goals in just 55 games for a reason.
"We've gone with that attitude here the past couple of years," Tortorella said. "We're not going to play safe. We're going to take some chances. I think Sonny has been very attentive as far as learning the other side of the puck. Has he mastered it? Not by any stretch. There's still a lot of things he needs to learn, but he can make an offensive play. So, we're going to give him a whack at this here and see where we go."
As expected, Milano's heart rate rose a few ticks when he was told the news.
"I'm pretty excited," he said. "[I've] just got to keep playing the same way, try not to change a thing."
News & Notes
Anderson's misconduct penalty was for his boarding major on Kempny late in the first period, which drove Kempny's face into the glass of the end boards in the Washington zone.
Kempny sustained a cut above his right eye that required stitches to close and he missed the remainder of the game. Kempny returned to practice Saturday and is expected to play in Game 2. Anderson, who wasn't suspended for the hit, will also play.
He wasn't pleased with the call and doesn't plan to change his power approach to playing.
"It's the playoffs," Anderson said. "It's going to be a physical series … I'm not going to back off. That's how I play. I'm going to continue to play that way. I'm going to be physical."
Later in the game, Wilson came downhill on Wennberg and sandwiched him between his body and Capitals star Alex Ovechkin, driving his should/upper arm into the left side of Wennberg's helmet.
Neither Anderson nor Wilson received supplemental discipline from the NHL's Department of Player Safety. Foligno said he didn't feel a message needed to be sent to Wilson on the ice.
"We can't waste our time on that," he said. "It should've been handled, obviously, by the league and it wasn't. So, we're just going to go play. That's the way it goes, right? We're more worried about winning a hockey game than anything there. That's the decision they made, so we're ready to go play and win a hockey game, and just make sure we're worried about the other players that are on that team, as well, that are dangerous."
ONCE IS ENOUGH
Foligno's face looks much better than it did following Game 1, when he was struck by the puck in the third period off a slap shot taken by Capitals defenseman Jakub Jerabek.
Foligno's visor took the brunt of the blow, but the puck and visor still hit his face and did enough damage to leave him bloodied, with bruising on his nose and scrapes stretching from his nose to his left check - just under his left eye.
He's watched a video replay of it, but only once.
"I saw it one time," Foligno said. "I didn't want to see it again. I lived it. So, I was like, 'Alright, I'm good.'"
What he was really looking at was how the puck came up so high in such a short distance between where the shot was launched and where Foligno parked to block it.
"It just seemed like it popped up when he shot it," Foligno said. "I know a lot of [defensemen] now have these big curves [in their stick blades]. It's just unfortunate. I don't think he was trying to do it. At least, let's hope not … and I highly doubt that. It's just a freak accident. That's the best worst-case scenario, I guess."
Zach Werenski was hit in the face in the first-round last season against the Pittsburgh Penguins, under his right eye, and defenseman Ian Cole was hit in the mouth earlier this season while playing for the Penguins, which knocked out multiple teeth in the front of his upper row.
Foligno said he won't hesitate to get in front of more shots, despite what happened.
"It's just what you do," he sid. "We're not the smartest guys, I guess. I don't know. It's part of the game. It's for the greater good. You're trying to help this team, and if you've got to block a game-winning shot with your face, you'll do it, as dumb as that sounds. In those situations, you're going to do whatever you can for this team. Everyone else will lay their body on the line."
'BOB' THE BUILDER
Lost in the hoopla of the Blue Jackets' impressive comeback win Thursday was the performance of goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, who made 27 saves on 30 shots and played a strong game.
Much has been made of Bobrovsky's previous playoff struggles, as compared to stellar regular-season numbers, but 'Bob' looked sharp in Game 1 - especially in keeping the Capitals from scoring in the second period, with Washington already leading 2-0 and starting the period still on the power play.
"We weren't clean for a number of minutes in that hockey game," Tortorella said. "They had a lot of pressure on us, had some really good scoring chances. 'Bob' gave us a chance. He was outstanding in very important minutes of that game."
It could be a good building block for Bobrovsky to begin a string of strong postseason starts.
"All the talk on 'Bob' and his playoff hockey, I think 'Bob' has handled himself very well," Tortorella said. "He can't hide from it. You guys are going to ask him the questions, it's your job, but I think he's handled it very well, that he uses every game as a process to try and get himself better. He is probably one of our best pros in that locker room, as far as his preparation and his mind-set, as far as knowing where he's at, knowing where his game's at and knowing how important he is to this team."