COLUMBUS, Ohio — As 2017 comes to a close, the Columbus Blue Jackets are having trouble finishing games.
Twice in the past week, the Blue Jackets have squandered two-goal leads and lost road games — one in a shootout in Pittsburgh and another in regulation at Ottawa.
The Blue Jackets (22-14-3) and the Tampa Bay Lightning (27-8-2) will both try to wrap up the current year with a bang and ring in 2018 with a victory on New Year’s Eve.
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The way things have gone lately for the Blue Jackets, they could really use some positive momentum. They’ve been hit hard by injuries in the past month and subsequently slid down the standings after being near the top for the first two months of the season.
“We’ve got to get some skin on ourselves here now,” Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella said. “You go through some of this stuff during the year and you find out about people. We’ve been trying to gain traction here for a few weeks now.”
The return of Zach Werenski, one of the NHL’s most skilled defensemen, on Friday night at Ottawa was good news for the Blue Jackets. But they remain without injured forwards Cam Atkinson, Alexander Wennberg and Brandon Dubinsky.
“To get one out of four points isn’t good enough, especially in the circumstances we were in,” Werenski said after Friday’s 5-4 loss to the Senators that ended a two-game road trip. “Two-goal leads in both games, we’d have liked to have all four points.
“But it’s hockey. It’s part of it. They weren’t good finishes by us by any means, so we move forward and play a good team on Sunday. It should be a good test for us.”
Before postgame New Year’s Eve celebrations that include indoor fireworks commence Sunday night, the Blue Jackets might need to make the cannon that is fired after each of their goals at Nationwide Arena go off frequently.
That’s because the Lightning are one of the league’s most dynamic offensive teams. Right winger Nikita Kucherov leads the NHL with 24 goals and 54 points, center Steven Stamkos is close behind with 48 points and Tampa Bay is No. 1 in goals per game at 3.70 and power play goals percentage with a conversion rate of 25.9.
The Lightning come to Columbus after a rare home loss, falling 5-3 to the Philadelphia Flyers on Friday night in the second half of a back-to-back.
“We took one on the chin and we just have to regroup for Columbus,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.
Tampa Bay has gone 10-2 in December to increase its league-best point total to 56. The Lightning have been rolling for the most part while also getting stellar goaltending from Andrei Vasilevskiy, who leads the NHL with 24 victories.
Vasilevskiy had the night off Friday for a game that the Lightning not only lost but suffered a potential blow when backup goalie Peter Budaj had to leave with a left leg injury after a collision. His status was unclear after the game.
The game in Columbus begins a five-city road trip for the Lightning that includes four Atlantic Division opponents and concludes a week from Sunday in Detroit.
“It’s going to be a battle, it’s going to be a test,” Lightning forward Tyler Johnson said. “It’s a long road trip. We’ve got to be prepared for that. We’ve got to be a lot better than we were (against the Flyers) and keep on getting better every day.”
Sergei Bobrovsky is the projected starter in goal for the Blue Jackets. He ranks among the top 10 goalies in wins with 18 and for the most part has given Columbus a chance most nights.
Sonny Milano, recalled by the Blue Jackets before Christmas, delivered two goals in Friday’s loss and Josh Anderson scored his team-leading 14th goal.
Defenseman Jack Johnson doesn’t think the recent struggle to close out games will linger.
“There shouldn’t be this huge mental roadblock or anything like that,” he said.