COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Arizona Coyotes are on the road again, playing away from home for the NHL-high 20th time this season, and the Columbus Blue Jackets are returning home triumphantly Saturday night from New Jersey to finish off back-to-back games.
The Blue Jackets rebounded from a 4-1 loss at home on Tuesday by going to New Jersey and whipping the Devils 5-3 on Friday night.
The win vaulted the Blue Jackets (18-10-1) past the Devils into a first-place tie atop the Metropolitan Division with the Washington Capitals. But Columbus coach John Tortorella said he isn’t looking at the standings at this point in the season.
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“I know the Metro is a very tough division,” Tortorella said after Friday night’s win, “but to get caught up (in that) … I heard someone say this is for first place in the Metro. Who cares?
“It is 30 games into the season. We have 52 left. We’re just trying to be the best team we can be.”
Blue Jackets forward Artemi Panarin was at his best against the Devils, tying a franchise record with five assists and five points in the game.
Tortorella recently challenged the talented Panarin to pick up his game, and he responded in a big way. Panarin’ teammates are the beneficiaries of his pinpoint passes.
“He’s so skilled,” Columbus defenseman Zach Werenski told reporters after scoring a goal Friday night. “We see it every day in practice. We see it every game. What’d he get, five assists (Friday night)? That’s insane.
“It’s fun to watch him on the bench, up close and in person. He’s such a good player.”
Not only did Panarin produce, but Alexander Wennberg scored a goal for the first time since Oct. 14. His tiebreaking power-play goal in the third period ended a long Columbus dry spell with the man advantage (two goals in the previous 15 games and the second fewest overall this season in the Eastern Conference).
Meanwhile, the Coyotes just can’t wait to get off the road again. Their visit to has Nationwide Arena is part of a trip that has included a 6-1 loss in Boston on Thursday night and concludes Sunday against the Blackhawks in Chicago.
“I try not to think about it,” Coyotes defenseman Luke Schenn said, according to the team’s official website, “but at the same time we’re all aware of the schedule and how tough it is. It’s cliche, but you just try to tackle it game by game, and the guys in this room aren’t looking at it as an excuse.”
One bit of good news for the road-weary Coyotes (7-19-5) is the return of goaltender Antti Raanta from an upper-body injury. Raanta, who had been sidelined since Nov. 22, was available but did not play Thursday in the loss to the Bruins.
Raanta practiced Friday and he is expected to get the start against the Blue Jackets in the teams’ first meeting this season.
“It feels good being with the boys on the ice and everything has gone how we’ve wanted it to go,” Raanta said, according to the team’s official website. “So we’ll just go day by day. Usually, we want to feel a little bit better every day. Whenever the coaches say you’re going, I’m going.”
Raanta is 4-5-0 with a 2.84 goals-against average while playing in just 13 of the Coyotes’ 31 games this season. He had won three straight starts before suffering the injury.
Backup Scott Wedgewood filled in during Raanta’s absence and was in goal for Arizona’s latest loss. If Raanta is unable to play, Wedgewood will get the call against Columbus.
Wedgewood made 25 saves on Thursday night and Christian Dvorak scored the lone goal for Arizona against Boston.
The Coyotes are also happy to have defenseman Jakob Chychrun back. In two games since returning from offseason knee surgery, Chychrun has scored a goal on six shots.