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At the Rink: Capitals at Blue Jackets

by Craig Merz

COLUMBUS -- Coming out of the All-Star break, the Columbus Blue Jackets face a desperate struggle to make up ground in their hunt for a second consecutive berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The Blue Jackets (20-22-3) need to make up 14 points on the Boston Bruins for the second of two Eastern Conference wild-card spots; they have 37 games left to do it, starting with their game Tuesday against the Washington Capitals.

Coach Todd Richards figures Columbus, 13th in the Eastern Conference, will need to win at least 25 games and pick up a few overtime or shootout points to qualify at about 97 points. The Blue Jackets earned a wild-card spot last season with 93 points.

"You can't start thinking about, 'We've got to get this number of points,'" Richards said. "All it is is about tonight's game. This is a big segment right here. It's as simple as that. It's the next game."

The Capitals (24-13-9) are seventh in the Eastern Conference, but they lost three straight (0-2-1) before the All-Star break. After not making the playoffs last season, Capitals right wing Alex Ovechkin understands the important of the final stretch.

"It's a situation where you don't want to be in that position again and miss by a couple of points," he said. "That's why this time of year for us is important. Everybody knows it."

The Blue Jackets have a recent history of strong finishes. During the lockout season of 2012-13, they went 19-5-5 in their final 29 games but missed qualifying in the Western Conference by a point.

Last season, they were 22-12-3 in their final 37 games.

"We've done it before, but you don't want to say it's going to be easy," Columbus forward Jared Boll said. "It's not going to be easy. We've got to come out this first game and prove to ourselves we can do this and there's still time."

A big difference between last season and now is the Blue Jackets will be without starting goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, who injured his groin against the Winnipeg Jets in the final game before the All-Star break and will be out at least four weeks.

Curtis McElhinney (4-6-1, 2.98 goals-against average, .907 save percentage) will handle the bulk of the workload, and Anton Forsberg was recalled on an emergency basis from Springfield of the American Hockey League.

McElhinney has performed well lately, going 3-1-0 with a 2.03 GAA and .937 in his past six games.

"The team's played better in front of him," Columbus defenseman Dalton Prout said. "In the games earlier in the season when there were a lot more goals it was the team's fault, it wasn't his.

"He gives a consistent effort. I've played with him the better part of three seasons and even at his worst he gives us a chance to win."

McElhinney will face one of the hottest scorers in the NHL in Ovechkin, who has five goals in the past three games and 11 in 11 games. His 27 goals are third in the League.

"When you love to score goals and have to score you just want the puck on your stick," Ovechkin said. "My teammates know it and give it to me."

Here are the projected lineups:


Alex OvechkinNicklas BackstromAndre Burakovsky

Marcus JohanssonEvgeny KuznetsovTroy Brouwer

Brooks LaichEric FehrJoel Ward

Jason ChimeraJay BeagleTom Wilson

Brooks OrpikJohn Carlson

Karl AlznerMatt Niskanen

Jack HillenMike Green

Braden Holtby

Justin Peters

Scratched: Michael Latta

Injured: Dmitry Orlov (wrist), John Erskine (neck surgery), Aaron Volpatti (neck)


Scott Hartnell - Brandon Dubinsky - Josh Anderson

Nick Foligno - Ryan JohansenCam Atkinson

Matt Calvert - Alexander WennbergJeremy Morin

Jared Boll - Mark LetestuCorey Tropp

Jack Johnson - David Savard

Kevin Connauton - James Wisniewski

Dalton Prout - Fedor Tyutin

Curtis McElhinney

Anton Forsberg

Scratched: Cody Goloubef, Jordan Leopold, Jack Skille

Injured: Artem Anisimov (torn triceps), Brian Gibbons (knee), Nathan Horton (back), Boone Jenner (back), Ryan Murray (knee), Sergei Bobrovsky (knee)

Status report: Boll, a healthy scratch the past two games, replaces Skille on the fourth line.

Who's hot: The Capitals have at least a point in 13 of the past 17 road games (9-4-4). They are second in the NHL in road power-play percentage (24.2 percent) and third overall (24.4). … Columbus has the fourth-best power play (24.3). The Blue Jackets are 17-for-60 (28.3) with the advantage in their last 23 games.

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