COLUMBUS, Ohio – When the puck drops for tonight’s tilt, the Blue Jackets will face a hungry New York Islanders team that is jockeying for playoff position.
The Islanders (45-27-5, 95 pts) are 3-6-1 in their last 10 games and desperate to get two points against a resurgent Columbus team (37-35-4, 78 pts), 9-1-0 in their last 10 and winners of their last seven consecutive games. The Blue Jackets are playing with a confidence not seen in some time.
"They’re a team that plays fast and have good depth," said head coach Todd Richards of the Islanders. "They’ll stretch you out and put you in some one-on-one situations. We’re going to have to be good in the one-on-one game, but also get our second and third man close to the puck to support that one-on-one battle."
With Columbus mathematically eliminated from postseason play Tuesday evening, the remaining games are about more than just playing for pride. They are icing their healthiest lineup to date in this injury-ravaged season. Couple that with the confidence they are showing that stretches beyond their current winning streak and one gets a glimpse of how this team is a tough one to play against.
"As of late," said center Boone Jenner, "we’ve been playing more to our identity, the style we want to play and putting together a full 60 minutes consistently. That’s what we need to do to win and you can see that we can play with any team in the league. Down the stretch we’ve beat some good teams and played some good games."
Richards has said that the team is playing better defensively. It cannot be understated how beneficial it has been to have a majority of their players healthy. Were they a healthy team this season, might they have been in the mix for a top-three spot in the Metropolitan Division?
"It’s tough to say," said Jenner. "That’s in the past and we can’t do anything about that. We just have to get better and learn from it – better ourselves and our team. Obviously missing the playoffs is tough. But at this point, there’s no reason that this shouldn’t be our best hockey. We want to keep getting better and keep winning games."
Beyond winning games, playing the right way is the refrain uttered mostly around the room. There is a desire to show that the fans faith in the team is not misguided. Gone are the days of playing out the string. The Blue Jackets are setting the stage for next year as this season winds down.
"I think we just feed off each other," Jenner said of the way they’re currently playing. "One line gets going and the next line follows it. Hard work and good habits are contagious. I think we’ve been doing that, as of late."
Boll in, Dano sits
Having served his three-game suspension for an illegal check to the head of Anaheim Ducks’ forward Patrick Maroon, forward Jared Boll has been inserted back into the lineup by Todd Richards. He’ll skate on the fourth line centered by Mark Letestu, with Matt Calvert on the opposite wing. Unlike last season, Boll has remained healthy this year.
"It’s a long year and a lot of games," said Boll. "Sometimes, the year isn’t going to go the way you want it to go. You’ll get those bumps and bruises and get hurt. And sometimes you’ll get lucky and stay healthy. Fortunately this year, I’ve been able to stay healthy, for the most part. For me, I’ve felt pretty good."
Marko Dano is 3-6-9 with a plus-8 rating in his last 10 games, but will watch tonight’s game from the press level of Nationwide Arena.
"It’s a chance for a young player," Richards said of scratching Dano. "He can learn a lot by watching. It’s a chance for him to sit and watch. He worked hard today and will practice tomorrow and then we’ll see about Saturday (versus Pittsburgh). To me, it’s part of the process."
Richards also said that defenseman Jack Johnson came to the rink this morning, but wasn’t feeling well. Consequently, the team made the decision to send him home with Richards saying he’ll be reassessed this afternoon. If Johnson doesn’t suit-up for the game, Justin Falk will draw-in.