The Blue Jackets head out on the road hoping to snap a four-game losing streak, but they’ll have to take down the surging Bruins to do so. After struggling for much of the season’s first half, the Bruins have now won five in a row and are starting to look like the team that some were picking to win the East at the start of the season.
After losing three straight games to teams outside the playoff picture, the Bruins got their act together with wins over the Lightning, Penguins and Rangers, as well as wins against the Devils and Flyers. A string of games that could have sent the Bruins’ season into a tail spin has instead served as the launching pad to thrust Boston back into the playoff picture, now sitting seventh in the conference after 45 games.
Goaltender Tuukka Rask gets his share of the praise. Rask is coming off a 30-save shutout of the Rangers on home ice, he’s won four straight starts, and he has surrendered fewer than three goals in four of his last five appearances.
The Bruins aren’t getting the offense they traditionally expect from a number of players, particularly Milan Lucic. Lucic has only nine goals on the season, but three of those have come in the last four games. Injury returns should also benefit the Bruins and take some heat off of leading scorer Patrice Bergeron. Second-line center David Krejci missed a month between mid-November and December with a groin issue, and enters today’s game with a five-game points streak (1-5-6).
In the wake of injuries on the back end, Dougie Hamilton (7-17-24) and Torey Krug (8-15-23) have been putting up points from the blue line and showing maturity with heightened responsibility this season after Johnny Boychuk was dealt away to start the season.
The Bruins, 15-6-4 at home this season, will be without forward Brad Marchand. The Bruins’ agitator received a two-game suspension for slew-footing Derick Brassard on Thursday night.
The Jackets had one of their more definitive wins of the season on Dec. 27, a 6-2 win over the Bruins at Nationwide Arena. Scott Hartnell returned to the lineup from a broken finger and wasted no time jumping back into the action. Hartnell scored 8:11 into the first period and added another goal to kick off the second. Kevin Connauton also found the back of the net, his second goal in three games and the eventual game-winner.
Curtis McElhinney made 26 saves for the win in his first start in 11 games. It was Columbus’ ninth win over that stretch.
The Blue Jackets need offense from Cam Atkinson, something he himself admitted before Friday night’s game against the Rangers. Atkinson has only one goal in his last 22 games, but is still getting second-line minutes on a nightly basis and top power play time. “There’s lot of guys I would like to see (break out) because I’ve seen it in the past," Richards said earlier in the week. "(Atkinson) is one.” The Blue Jackets are looking for more depth scoring from all their forwards, but Atkinson has the talent to be a major contributor. Friday night against the Rangers was one of his better games in recent weeks, and the Jackets need to see more of that from him to support the top line, which has been doing most of the scoring.
David Pastrnak has been instant offense since he was called up to the Bruins on Jan. 8. After two brief call-ups earlier in the season, the Bruins’ 2014 first-rounder is making a splash with four goals in his last three games courtesy of back-to-back two-goal performances. Those two games certainly made an impression on the Bruins front office; by playing Pastrnak in his ninth game on Thursday, the Bruins committed to keeping the rookie with the NHL club for the remainder of the season. “We feel pretty confident in him taking that next step developmentally. You don't ignore that stuff, you keep an eye on it but we're prepared to commit to him up at this level and continue to develop him properly," said Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli.
Big Bad ‘Bus
Is the key matchup Prout vs Lucic III? Not necessarily, but the Blue Jackets need to go into Boston and set a physical tone against a team that prides itself on using its size. When the Bruins are at their best, they’re in your face. The Blue Jackets brought that physical intensity in the first period against the Rangers, as well as late in the third period, dominating possession and suffocating the Rangers breakout. The same approach is critical against the Bruins; the Blue Jackets have brought their best this season for some of their more lethal opponents (Rangers, Penguins, Blackhawks). The Bruins are another team that should summon that kind of effort.