Blues-Blue Jackets Preview
If the Columbus Blue Jackets had remained in the Central Division, they'd be in last place.
The reality is they're in the top half of the easier-going Metropolitan Division with Eastern Conference playoff hopes, though the St. Louis Blues visit Columbus on Saturday night hoping to remind their former division foes of their good fortune.
The Blues (21-6-3) have won 10 of 13 against the Blue Jackets (14-15-3) and 10 of 12 this season versus the East, including Thursday's 6-3 home victory over Toronto.
David Backes sparked a 3-0 first-period lead and added an empty-netter while Alexander Steen scored his Western Conference-leading 22nd goal. Jaden Schwartz had a goal and two assists, giving him 12 points in the last 11 games.
"Our whole team did a good job of jumping on them early," Schwartz said. "We put pucks on the net and got a lot of second-chance opportunities."
Backes has 29 points in 30 games after posting 28 in 48 contests a season ago, though when asked about it after the game, he didn't worry much about the pace he's on.
"You guys figure all that stuff out," Backes said. "I'm more concerned about how our team is playing and whether we are winning games."
Wins seem to go hand in hand with the scoring of Backes and Steen. St. Louis is 16-0-2 when Steen scores and 11-1-1 when Backes registers a goal.
They won't be facing 2012-13 Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky or backup Curtis McElhinney on Saturday. Bobrovsky has been shelved for four games with a groin injury that's expected to keep him out for a month while McElhinney left Thursday's 4-2 road win over the New York Rangers with a lower-body injury.
That forced Mike McKenna into action, and he made 17 saves to preserve McElhinney's win.
McKenna, a St. Louis native, will start against his hometown team. He last saw NHL action in 2010-11 with New Jersey.
"You play this game so long. It's not like I'm 15 years old. I'm 30 years old. I've done this for a while," McKenna told the team's official website. "You go in and you play your game. You do your best and try to play within yourself."
The Blue Jackets are 3-1-0 since Bobrovsky went down and have won four of five overall. They're trying to win five straight at home for the first time since Nov. 29-Dec. 17, 2008.
Against the Rangers, Ryan Johansen scored his team-leading 11th goal to extend his career-best seven-game point streak. The third-year center has already set career highs in goals and points (25).
Matt Calvert scored in a third straight game while Cam Atkinson had an assist to give him six points in the last four.
Columbus built a 3-0 lead midway through the first period.
"It was a great start," coach Todd Richards said. "Guys were ready for the game, and guys were geared up."
The Blues have been choosing to go without their No. 1 goalie, Jaroslav Halak, of late. Brian Elliott appeared in his third consecutive game Thursday and made a second straight start, stopping 19 shots to improve to 6-1-1.
Elliott is 5-0-1 with a 1.97 goals-against average versus Columbus while Halak is 7-4-1 with a 2.62 GAA.
Blue Jackets defenseman James Wisniewski (upper body) was placed on injured reserve Friday retroactive to Dec. 6.