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Blue Jackets' Gaborik returns to top line

by Craig Merz

COLUMBUS -- Playing with some consistency going into the 19-day break for the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Columbus Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards didn't want to wreck all his lines to make way for the return from injury of Marian Gaborik against the New Jersey Devils on Thursday in the first post-Sochi game.

Gaborik had been out since Dec. 21 and Richards was unsure how he would respond to his first action in nine weeks so the skilled right wing was placed on the fourth line with grinders Derek MacKenzie and Mark Letestu.

"Our line combinations seemed to be working well," Richards said Friday, a day after a 5-2 loss to the Devils. "Prior to the Olympics we were playing good hockey, good structure. We didn't see much of that in [the game Thursday]."

The Blue Jackets (29-25-5) fell behind 3-0 in the opening nine minutes and Richards adjusted the lines on the fly.

Gaborik scored to make it 3-2 in the second period with new linemates Artem Anisimov and Nick Foligno assisting, and the trio will remain intact when the Blue Jackets play the Florida Panthers in a Saturday matinee at Nationwide Arena.

Matt Calvert has been dispatched to the fourth line and Richards said moving Gaborik was really only a matter of time to take advantage of his and Calvert's strengths.

Calvert will be called upon to provide the type of play that Blake Comeau and Corey Tropp have at various stages this season. Both were healthy scratches vs. the Devils.

"It's more of an identity for your fourth line," Richards said. "That's one thing we lost when you take Comeau or Tropp out and have Gaborik there. Gaborik's more of an open-ice, wants the puck (player). He's not a guy who's going to crash and bang in the corners. That's not why we brought him here anyway.

"That line has provided us some pretty valuable minutes and energy."

The game is the second of consecutive home games against the Panthers (22-30-7) exactly one month apart. Columbus won 4-1 on Feb. 1, but it wasn't easy.

"For the most part that game they outplayed us," Letestu said.

The Panthers are coming off a 5-4 home loss Thursday to the Washington Capitals, rallying to tie with two third-period goals before Alexander Ovechkin scored the winner for the Capitals with under five minutes left in regulation.

"The character and determination part of it was good," Florida interim coach Peter Horachek said.

He was less pleased with other aspects of the game.

"They scored two power-play goals and we didn't handle it very well and they scored three giveaway goals," he said afterward. "That's not even defensive zone. That's just mental breakdowns, mental undisciplined. You can't win games by playing turnover hockey."

Goaltender Tim Thomas, who took the loss against Columbus in the last meeting and played against the Capitals, is expected to start.

Here are the projected lineups:


Sean Bergenheim - Nick Bjugstad - Brad Boyes

Tomas Fleischmann - Marcel Goc - Jesse Winchester

Jonathan Huberdeau - Drew Shore - Scottie Upshall

Krys Barch - Scott Gomez - Jimmy Hayes

Brian Campbell - Tom Gilbert

Ed Jovanovski - Erik Gudbranson

Dmitry Kulikov - Mike Weaver

Tim Thomas

Scott Clemmensen

Scratched: Shawn Matthias, Dylan Olsen

Injured: Aleksander Barkov (lower body), Tomas Kopecky (upper body)


Nick Foligno - Artem Anisimov - Marian Gaborik

RJ Umberger - Brandon Dubinsky - Cam Atkinson

Boone Jenner - Ryan Johansen - Nathan Horton

Matt Calvert - Derek MacKenzie - Mark Letestu

Jack Johnson - James Wisniewski

Ryan Murray - David Savard

Nikita Nikitin - Dalton Prout

Sergei Bobrovsky

Curtis McElhinney

Scratched: Cody Goloubef, Corey Tropp, Blake Comeau

Injured: Fedor Tyutin (ankle), Jared Boll (ankle surgery)

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