BLUE JACKETS (18-15-3) at MAPLE LEAFS (13-18-4)
TV -- FS-O (HD), LEAFS TV
Last 10 --
Columbus 3-5-2; Toronto 4-6-0
Season series --
This is the first meeting of the season for Columbus and Toronto, who will face off twice in the next eight days. The Maple Leafs doubled up the Blue Jackets 6-3 in their only game a year ago on Dec. 3, 2009 at Nationwide Arena.
Big story --
Both the Leafs and Jackets are in last place in their respective divisions, but Columbus, despite its spot in the standings, is easily within reach of the top eight in the logjammed West. Two big points are waiting for the Jackets when they make their first visit to the Air Canada Centre in 22 months.
Blue Jackets --
Columbus may be in the Central Division cellar, but it has the unfortunate luck of being in what might be the best division in hockey. All five teams in the Central have legitimate postseason aspirations, with the Jackets, just four points out of the final playoff spot in the West, right among them. In fact, Columbus is just four points out of second place in its division, which features Detroit, unquestionably the League's most consistent franchise in the past two decades, and Chicago, the defending champs.
While the Blue Jackets seemed to have acquitted themselves fairly well so far this season in such esteemed company, they certainly haven't helped their cause lately by losing six of their last eight games. One big reason why seems to be the tremendous uncertainty Columbus has between the pipes, with 2009 Calder Trophy winner Steve Mason
fighting a lack of confidence and Mathieu Garon not doing enough to usurp the full-time job from him. Mason may have taken a large step in Columbus' last game, a 4-3 shootout win against Minnesota on Monday, by turning in an impressive 37-save performance. Given that Garon has surrendered 10 goals over his last two starts, there's no time like the present for Mason to start returning to his rookie form.
Maple Leafs --
While the Leafs also sit in last place, their prospects aren't nearly as optimistic. Toronto is 14 points behind first-place Boston and 12 points out of the final playoff spot in the East. The Maple Leafs' recent play -- the team has lost three of its last four -- hasn't helped matters, and as a result they have decided to put a major glimpse at their future away for the time being. Toronto announced Wednesday that it would be assigning 2009 first-round pick Nazem Kadri
to its AHL affiliate after his first stint with the big club, which saw him tally 6 assists in 17 games.
The news hasn't been all bad for the Leafs, however. Toronto dropped its last game, 4-3 to Carolina Tuesday, due to a goal scored in the waning minutes, a bitter pill to swallow. But the game also saw Phil Kessel
score twice after being unable to light the lamp for four games. In addition, Nikolai Kulemin
has given Toronto steady production on the wing over the last 10 days, tallying 4 points in his last five games, and the team is expected to get goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere back from IR soon. With their last game of 2010 coming Thursday, the Leafs may have reason yet to believe the new year will provide better things than the old one.
Who's hot -- Mikhail Grabovski
has been carrying the load recently for Toronto, tallying 5 goals and 1 assist over his current six-game point streak. … Columbus defenseman Fedor Tyutin
only has 8 points in 34 games this season, but three of them have come in his last five outings.
Injury report --
Columbus is without Derek MacKenzie
, who has been on injured reserve with a groin injury since Dec. 12. … Toronto is still likely to be Giguere, who is also battling a groin injury, while Tim Brent is listed as questionable with an undisclosed illness.
Stat pack --
Mason's big night against Minnesota and a 32-save outing against the Rangers on Dec. 11 could be signs the one-time phenom is starting to find his game again, but he has a long way to go to be the same player he was two seasons ago. His current 3.23 goals-against average is nearly a full goal higher than the 2.29 he posted in 2009.
Puck drop --
Columbus is certainly in the position to make an unexpected playoff run, but questions abound as to whether the Blue Jackets have the offense or the goaltending to compete with their Central Division brethren. The Leafs may not present the same challenge Detroit might Thursday night, but if Columbus is to make a real move in the race, Toronto stands between it and two points it needs to have.