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Preview: Blue Jackets looking for stronger finish and fifth straight win

Close calls against Avalanche, Red Wings have their attention with Canadiens on tap

by Brian Hedger @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

GAME 70: CANADIENS (25-31-12) AT BLUE JACKETS (36-28-5)

Location: Nationwide Arena, 7 P.M., Monday

TV: Fox Sports Ohio/Fox Sports Go (Jeff Rimer, Jody Shelley); TSN2, RDS

Radio: 97.1 FM & BlueJackets.com (Bob McElligott)

The Blue Jackets have won four straight games to improve their standing amid a tight race between three teams for a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

That's good news.

What's a little concerning is how the last two games concluded. Columbus won each one, downing the Colorado Avalanche in overtime Thursday and Detroit Red Wings in regulation Friday, but neither game was comfortable for the Blue Jackets in the final five minutes of the third period.

The Avalanche scored twice to tie the game, 4-4, before losing in OT and the Red Wings nearly overcame a two-goal deficit in the waning minutes of the third. Columbus needed a great save by Sergei Bobrovsky with three seconds left to avoid OT in that game.

"It almost felt like a 5-1 game in the third period there," veteran forward Matt Calvert said of the close call. "I liked what we did. We kept our foot on the gas pedal, but you can't give up a 2-on-1 [goal] with five minutes left. It's something we've got to learn from and learn from quickly, because you get those situations in the playoffs, you want to finish off a win."

They need to qualify for the playoffs first.

Video: Foligno on the team's mood in the final stretch

It's still a tight squeeze between the Philadelphia Flyers, Blue Jackets, New Jersey Devils and Florida Panthers for two wild cards in the Eastern Conference plus third place in the Metropolitan Division.

Columbus is in the second wild-card spot, one point behind the Devils for the first wild card and two points ahead of the Panthers for the second. Philadelphia is four points ahead in the Metro's third position.

The Blue Jackets need to stack as many wins and points as they can in the remaining 13 games and can't let any slip through their fingers late in games.

"I think [Thomas Vanek] says it in here, 'We're the 'Scary Jackets,'' and from what he's seeing, we've been wanting to give up two-goal leads," Calvert said. "It's too close. Guys are going to finish those chances and it's something we're going to focus on getting better at. Obviously, there's a lot of positives in our game right now, but we need to keep taking that next step if we want to be in the playoffs and be a good team in the playoffs."

The Blue Jackets had a day off Saturday and practiced Sunday at the OhioHealth Ice Haus, preparing for the Montreal Canadiens on a busy hockey weekend at Nationwide Arena, which hosted OHSAA state championship games and a Big Ten Conference semifinal between Ohio State and Michigan.

Its next big game will have Stanley Cup Playoff implications, which the Blue Jackets are watching closely.

"The biggest plus for us is we can control our own destiny, so there's no sense of looking at the scoreboard at this particular time," coach John Tortorella said. "I know they will after games. I know they talk about it, but if we take care of our business, we'll be OK."

Video: Tortorella on the line pairings, team chemistry

SERIES RECORD

2017-18 Season: (1-1-0). This is the finale of a three-game series, with the Blue Jackets and Canadiens splitting the first two at Bell Centre in Montreal. Columbus won the opener, 2-1, in overtime Nov. 14 for the second win in a season-high, six-game winning streak Nov. 11-24. Zach Werenski scored the winning goal in OT. The Canadiens won, 3-1, on Nov. 27, getting goals from Brendan Gallagher, Jonathan Drouin and Andrew Shaw.

All-time (W-L-T-O): 12-10-1-2 overall; 5-4-0-1 at Nationwide Arena

WHO'S HOT

Canadiens: Antti Niemi has allowed two-or-fewer goals in seven of his past nine appearances, including the Canadiens' 3-2 shootout loss Saturday in Tampa Bay. Niemi made 32 saves, allowing two goals on 34 shots to help get the game to overtime.

Blue Jackets: Seth Jones has five points (three goals, two assists) in the past two games, including the second two-goal game of his career Friday against Detroit; Artemi Panarin has seven points (three goals, four assists) in a four-game point streak, and has points in 10 of the past 11 games.

EYES ON: THE CANADIENS

  • Montreal will conclude its second-longest road trip of the season when the Canadiens face the Blue Jackets. It will be their sixth straight game away from the Bell Centre. Montreal is 1-3-1 in the first five games, including the shootout loss to Lightning. The Canadiens' longest trip this season, Dec. 16-30, covered seven games and was split by Christmas break. They won the first two games of that one, then lost the next five to go 2-5-0. Combined, Monteal is 3-8-1 on its two longest road trips, with one game left in the second one.
  • The Canadiens have numerous injuries and got a new one Saturday. Phillip Danault, who centers their third line, took a stick in the face late in the second period and played sparingly in the third. They also got a scare when forward Charlie Hudon was hauled down from behind in the third and hit the boards feet first at nearly full speed. Hudon, who'd missed the previous four games with a hand injury, could barely get off the ice after an apparent ankle injury. He missed only one shift, though, and finished the game. He's one of three guys on the active roster dealing with injuries, while five others are on injured reserve, including Shea Weber, Carey Price and captain Max Pacioretty.
  • One reason for Montreal's poor road trip is what's happening when the Canadiens are called for penalties. They've allowed at least one goal while shorthanded in each of the first five games of the trip. In 21 times they've been shorthanded, Montreal has successfully killed the opposing power play just 12 times. That's an ice-cold 57.1 percent. The Canadiens have struggled on the power, too, going just 1-for-16 during the trip (6.3 percent) and 3-for-28 (10.7 percent) in their past 10 games overall.  

EYES ON: THE BLUE JACKETS

  • Defensemen have started contributing offensively quite a bit during the Blue Jackets' winning streak, as they get back to their "safe is death" style of play. Columbus has gotten six goals from defensemen in the past three games, including three from Jones, two from Zach Werenski and one from Ian Cole, who nearly had a second one off a point shot credited to Artemi Panarin in San Jose. The Blue Jackets have scored 16 goals during the streak, an average of four per game, and 37.5 percent of those tallies were scored by defensemen.
  • Cam Atkinson was struck in the skate by another hard slap shot late in the first period against Detroit and limped off the ice in pain. He remained on the bench, though, didn't miss a shift and finished the game. He even had an assist. It was reminiscent of how he broke a bone in his right foot against the Philadelphia Flyers on Dec. 23 at Nationwide Arena, when a slap shot from the point by Jones struck him in the skate boot while he stood in front of the net. This time, Red Wings defensemen Mike Green took the slap shot and Atkinson was struck while standing in the high-slot area. Atkinson practiced Sunday and appears to be fine. That's great news for the top line, which includes Panarin and rookie Pierre-Luc Dubois. Atkinson has meshed well with them for a couple weeks and has points in six of the past eight games.
  • Jones didn't participate in practice Sunday, but Tortorella said it was a mainenance day for the top-pairing defenseman. Jones was cross-checked in the back Thursday by Colorado Avalanche forward Carl Soderberg after scoring the game-winning goal in overtime, but played Friday against the Red Wings. ... Columbus activated defenseman Markus Nutivaara off injured reserve Sunday, after he returned to practice. Nutivaara's been out since Feb. 16 with an upper-body injury sustained late in the third period against the Philadelphia Flyers at Nationwide Arena (11 games).  

PROJECTED LINEUPS

CANADIENS

Forwards

Paul Byron - Jonathan Drouin - Brendan Gallagher

Alex Galchenyuk - Jacob De La Rose - Charles Hudon

Daniel Carr - Phillip Danault - Andrew Shaw

Nicholas Deslauriers - Byron Froese - Artturi Lehkonen

Defensemen 

Mike Reilly - Jeff Petry

Karl Alzner - Noah Juulsen

Jordie Benn - Brett Lernout

Goaltenders

Antti Niemi

Charlie Lindgren

Others: Rinat Valiev (lower body), David Schlemko (upper body), Logan Shaw, Nikita Scherbak

Injured Reserve: Shea Weber (foot), Carey Price (concussion), Ales Hemsky (concussion), Max Pacioretty (knee), Victor Mete (finger)

Long-Term IR: (concussion)

BLUE JACKETS

Forwards

Artemi Panarin - Pierre-Luc Dubois - Cam Atkinson

Sonny Milano - Nick Foligno - Oliver Bjorkstrand

Boone Jenner - Alexander Wennberg - Thomas Vanek

Matt Calvert - Mark Letestu - Brandon Dubinsky

Defensemen

Zach Werenski - Seth Jones

Jack Johnson - Ryan Murray

Ian Cole - David Savard

Goaltenders

Sergei Bobrovsky

Joonas Korpisalo

Others: Scott Harrington, Taylor Chorney, Lukas Sedlak, Markus Hannikainen, Josh Anderson (knee)

Injured reserve: Dean Kukan (upper body), Markus Nutivaara (upper body)

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