Playoff race about to get tougher for battered Blue Jackets

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              Vancouver Canucks center Elias Pettersson (40) sends a shot past Columbus Blue Jackets goaltender Elvis Merzlikins (90) during the third period of an NHL hockey game in Vancouver, British Columbia, Sunday, March 8, 2020. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press via AP)
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COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Dragged down by injuries and its lines patched together with rookies, the Columbus Blue Jackets are somehow still in the playoff hunt.

Getting contributions from a changing cast of fill-ins who started the season in the minors and picking up enough points in overtime losses — they lead the NHL in that category with 15 — the black-and-blue Blue Jackets have managed to stay in contention in the rugged Metropolitan Division.

It’s about to get even tougher.

Columbus started the week holding onto the Eastern Conference’s first wildcard slot, two points ahead of Carolina and three behind Pittsburgh for third place in the Metro with a dozen games to play.

“Every single game for us is important, especially with the team we have,” goalie Elvis Merzlikins said after the Blue Jackets beat Vancouver 2-1 on Sunday to finish a three-game western Canada swing 1-1-1. “We have to look at the reality, how unlucky this year we are with injuries, and we had to stick together like we are.”

The Penguins come to town Thursday. That begins an intimidating gauntlet that includes games against 11 opponents currently in a playoff spot or within striking distance. Seven times the Blue Jackets play on the road. There will be the Atlantic Division-leading Bruins at Boston, Metro leader Washington at home, and a home-and-home against Tampa Bay, the NHL leader in scoring goals. The April 3 game at Carolina could pit two teams battling for a wildcard spot.

The season has been tumultuous, starting with big questions about whether Columbus could still contend after the departure of free-agent forwards Artemi Panarin (New York Rangers) and Matt Duchene (Nashville), and two-time Vezina Trophy winning goalie Sergei Bobrovsky (Florida).

Then forward Josh Anderson, a guy the team was depending on for some veteran scoring punch, injured his shoulder in a fight Dec. 14, requiring surgery that ended his season. On Dec. 29, starting goalie Joonas Korpisalo suffered a knee injury that sidelined him for the next 24 games.

Less than a week later, the team lost valuable rookie forward Alexandre Texier and defenseman Dean Kukan.

February brought the biggest losses. All Star defenseman Seth Jones and top goal-scorer Oliver Bjorkstrand each suffered ankle fractures that required surgery. Center Alexander Wennberg was out for most of the month. Veteran forward Cam Atkinson has been sidelined with an ankle injury for two long stints totaling 25 games. He last played more than a month ago.

Stalwart defenseman Ryan Murray went out with an injury Dec. 14, came back for two games this month and now is “nicked up” again, according to coach John Tortorella.

After winning nine of 11 games in January, Columbus has gone 6-6-7.

Merzlikins piled up the wins starting in place of the injured Korpisalo, then missed five games after a hard hit to the head Feb 24. He returned Sunday night for the gut-it-out win over Vancouver.

“I think all three games, this whole trip we have played good hockey,” Tortorella said. “Coming in a back-to-back, grabbing two points, getting three out of six on the trip, we just keep on scratching.”

Rookie Emil Bemstrom and Eric Robinson — one of the players who started the season at the AHL affiliate in Cleveland — had the goals for the Blue Jackets on Sunday. Bemstrom is among six rookies who recorded their first NHL points this season.

“Next man up, baby,” said captain Nick Foligno, who played a string of games with two deep black eyes after taking a puck to the face Feb. 20. “We feel like we’ve been counted out this whole year. We found a way to be right where we are.”

Tortorella will be the last guy to make excuses about anything. He just keeps pushing, cajoling and willing the Blue Jackets to do what it takes and is clearly proud of the effort, particularly by the youngsters.

“I don’t think we’ve wavered with how we’ve played,” he said. “We’ve got to stay with it.”