The 2013-14 season marks the first year in which the Columbus Blue Jackets are a part of the Eastern Conference’s Metropolitan Division. And all ready, there seems to be a bit of a rivalry brewing with the Carolina Hurricanes.
This notion is in part accentuated by the fact that the two teams have played four closely-contested matches, splitting the season series down the middle with the fifth and final meeting on tap tonight at PNC Arena.
“It’s going to be a big game. We look at it like if we win, we’re five [points] out,” head coach Kirk Muller said. “We feel we can still press. There’s a lot of hunger in us.”
In the last meeting between these two teams that took place just a week-and-a-half ago in Columbus, the Canes snatched a 3-1 victory in what was 50 seconds away from being Anton Khudobin’s first shutout of the season – as it turned out, that would come nine days later. The Blue Jackets handed the Canes a stinging 4-3 loss prior to the Christmas break, as they tallied twice in the last four minutes of the game to claim victory. In a Jan. 10 meeting in Columbus, Sergei Bobrovsky, in his second game back from injury, posted a 36-save shutout in a 3-0 win. The Canes got come-from-behind revenge on the Blue Jackets 17 days later in Raleigh, scoring three unanswered goals in the third period to win 3-2.
It’s been a tight, back-and-forth season series that will take game No. 5 to decide.
“They don’t give up much. They’re a big team, and they’re built to play a tight game and a hard game,” Muller said. “They don’t give up many opportunities, so we’ve really battled to get any scoring opportunities, chances and goals. We’ve had some good goaltending against them. Games have been tight. When we get a chance, you have to be ready to capitalize.”
“It’s been tight. They’re a tight-checking, hard-nosed type team. You have to be willing to be up for the challenge as far as doing the right things with the puck and playing a heavy, grinding game. You can’t get frustrated, regardless, and they don’t give up a lot,” forward Eric Staal said. “It’s a good test for us tonight.”
Khudobin, who made a career-high 46 saves on 47 shots in Columbus on March 18, will get another crack at the Blue Jackets, as he gets the nod in net. The 27-year-old goaltender is coming off a 35-save shutout at Florida two nights ago.
“He’s playing really well. Shutouts are a nice bonus, but if you look at his stats, he’s been giving up three or less goals a game on a pretty consistent basis. That’s pretty impressive,” Muller said. “He’s been playing well, and he finally got the reward of a shutout the other night. His overall play has been pretty steady and solid.”
As has been the case recently, Staal will continue to play the left wing with Andrei Loktionov centering and Jiri Tlusty on the opposite wing. Tlusty netted twice in Florida, with Staal and Loktionov chipping in an assist each. The trio was a plus-6 combined, and Loktionov has five points (2g, 3a) in his last five games, including three points (1g, 2a) in his last two games.
“It was real good last game,” Staal said of the line combination. “It’s a different look, but for me, I’m comfortable at both positions. With Jiri and Lokti, they make some good plays and see the ice well.”
Tonight marks the Canes’ 74th game of the regular season and home game No. 38 with the team outside looking in on the playoff picture. Despite this, Staal said the team’s goal hasn’t changed from game No. 1.
“Wins. It’s all about results, and it’s all about points no matter what situation you’re in,” he said. “We know what situation we’re in as a group, and it’s about finding ways to win games.”