PREDATORS (27-15-3) at BLUE JACKETS (24-15-3)
Thursday, 7 p.m., Nationwide Arena, Columbus (FOX Sports Ohio, CBJ app, FOX Sports app, 97.1 The Fan)
In talking about the best team he's ever coached, John Tortorella might have established the blueprint his Columbus Blue Jackets team is looking to find in the second half.
When in Tampa on Tuesday ahead of the Jackets' game vs. the NHL's top team, Tortorella was asked about the 2004 Stanley Cup championship squad he coached when he was in charge of the Lightning.
"It's amazing what the mind does," Tortorella said. "We had a strut about ourselves and an arrogance about ourselves that far outreached anything with X's and O's. That's very important, especially with today's athlete -- it's not about X's and O's. It's about that strut and that right kind of arrogance.
"We had it back then, and I think that's what carried us through."
So can his current Blue Jackets team reach that same level?
Columbus could find out a lot about itself during its current stretch of games. After Tuesday's 4-0 loss to the Lightning, the Blue Jackets are back in action Thursday with a third jersey home game vs. Nashville, which is battling Winnipeg for the top spot in the Central Division. After that is a trip to take on defending Stanley Cup champion Washington, which leads the Metropolitan Division.
According to Hockey Reference, the Blue Jackets' strength of schedule thus far is 29th of 31 NHL teams, and 16 of the final 40 games will come against teams in the top 10 of the NHL in point percentage as of Tuesday afternoon.
In other words, there will be tests down the stretch for the Blue Jackets, who as of Tuesday were 12th in the NHL in point percentage and third in the Metro, locked in a heated race with the Capitals and Pittsburgh for the top spot.
"We've been up and down like a toilet seat," Tortorella said before the game vs. Tampa Bay. "But we're right in the middle of things here. I give our team credit -- find a way, FAW. Throughout inconsistencies, we have found ways to win games, so we just try to get better each and every day now."
Tortorella has made clear his disdain of the thought of measuring stick games. In the course of an 82-game season, picking out ones that mean more than others makes sense to fans but is something an NHL team cannot afford to do lest it lose track of the big picture.
To team members, a loss to Tampa Bay - or even previous home setbacks vs. Toronto and Washington in December - doesn't define the season, even if it winning is of course the preferable option.
"We have a good group here and we just have to keep working hard and sticking with it," winger Oliver Bjorkstrand said after the Tampa game. "It's going to be a big game for us against Nashville. They have a good team again. It would be huage for us if we get the win. We have to find a way and hopefully give them a good game here."
But about that swagger.
It was clear Tampa Bay had it in, and why wouldn't they with 33 wins in their first 43 games? The confidence level of the Lightning is through the roof, as the team didn't need much of an opening to create offense and it seemed like every small misstep by the Blue Jackets ended with Tampa Bay creating a scoring chance.
"That's the way it's going for them right now," Tortorella said. "They don't need much to score goals."
Can the Blue Jackets get to that point? Seth Jones had a simple answer.
"For sure," he said. "I think you have to be consistent in your game. You have to trust your game. You have to trust the system that you're playing and that it works. And you have to do it as a team. Half the team can't do it. It has to be something that is just part of the culture, it's built into your team and your guys know it.
"You can't have to be cocky about it in any way, but you play straight ahead, you work hard, you put your head down and you be a professional about it. But it's for sure something you can build."
Know The Foe
Nashville comes to Columbus on the back end of a back-to-back, as the Predators spent Wednesday night beating Chicago in overtime.
Going into the game, the Predators were one point behind Winnipeg in the race to win the Central Division. The main reason is the team's defense, as Nashville gives up the fewest goals in the NHL at 2.47 per game. The team has been strong at 5-on-5, too, at sixth in the NHL with a 1.29 ratio of goals for vs. against.
In net, reigning Vezina winner Pekka Rinne has started 31 games, going 17-10-2 with a 2.26 goals-against average and .920 save percentage. Juuse Saros is 10-5-1, 2.71, .907. Much of the strength of the defense comes from a deep crew along the blue line including Roman Josi (7-24-31, +1), Ryan Ellis (4-16-20, +6), P.K. Subban (4-13-17, +10), and Mattias Ekholm (5-27-32, +20). All four have been on the plus side of 50 percent when it comes to scoring chances at 5-on-5, per Natural Stat Trick.
Offensively, former Blue Jacket Ryan Johansen leads the team with 38 points with eight goals and 30 points. Filip Forsberg just returned from injured reserve and has 16 goals and 24 points in 28 games and netted the game winner Wednesday, while Kevin Fiala (8-18-26) and Craig Smith (14-11-25) are next in points.
Foligno Back, Three Out
Columbus was off Wednesday upon its return from its six-day, three-city road trip, but captain Nick Foligno was on the ice with a member of the coaching staff Wednesday and should return to the team's lineup vs. Nashville. Foligno has missed the last four games to be with his 5-year-old daughter, Milana, as she recovers from a heart procedure.
Both Markus Hannikainen (upper body) and Brandon Dubinsky (lower body) left Tuesday's game vs. Tampa Bay and went on injured reserve today, which would signal both a potential return to the lineup for Lukas Sedlak as well as Foligno.
Dubinsky has four goals and six assists for 10 points in 32 games, while Hannikainen has a 4-3-7 line in 34.
In addition, Columbus will be without goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky , the team announced Thursday. Jean-Francois Berube has been recalled from AHL Cleveland to take his place.
Blue Jackets projected lineup
Artemi Panarin - Pierre-Luc Dubois - Cam Atkinson
Oliver Bjorkstrand - Alexander Wennberg - Anthony Duclair
Nick Foligno - Boone Jenner - Josh Anderson
Eric Robinson - Lukas Sedlak - Riley Nash
Zach Werenski - Seth Jones
Ryan Murray - Markus Nutivaara
Scott Harrington - David Savard
Scratched: Dean Kukan, Sergei Bobrovsky