Atkinson may be sidelined in Jackets' showdown with Penguins (Dec 22, 2016)
A franchise-record winning streak has pushed the Columbus Blue Jackets near the top of the Eastern Conference. Extending their run to 11 straight games and taking the conference lead could be tougher than first anticipated.
Leading scorer Cam Atkinson may be sidelined Thursday night when the Blue Jackets play host to the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins in a matchup involving the league's most potent offense against one of its stingiest defenses.
Pittsburgh (21-7-5) has scored 114 goals, including a league-best 22 from Sidney Crosby, for a league-high 3.45 per game. Columbus (21-5-4), meanwhile, has allowed a conference-low 62 goals, or 2.07 per game.
Columbus is second in the league with an average of 3.30 goals scored per game, and Atkinson has been a big reason for that. He had two goals -- including the 100th of his NHL career -- as Columbus won its 10th in a row, 3-2 in a shootout over the Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday.
However, the Columbus Dispatch reported that Atkinson was wearing a walking boot on his left foot Wednesday after blocking a shot in the win.
"We'll see how it feels (Thursday)," Atkinson told the Dispatch. "It's precautionary, that's why I'm wearing the boot. It's not for fashion reasons. ... Personally, I'm a pretty fast healer. Hopefully, I will be able to rock and roll."
Atkinson has scored 13 points (six goals, seven assists) during the Blue Jackets' winning streak, and has recorded 21 of his team-best 33 points (14 goals, 19 assists) at home.
After reaching a personal milestone Tuesday, Atkinson is on the cusp of two more -- he needs two assists to reach 100 and two points for 200 in his career. But he's fared poorly when facing the Penguins, notching just two goals with an assist in 14 games.
Still, Atkinson's breakout season has been a key to Columbus' success in 2016-17. The Blue Jackets are 11-3-1 at home, and one point behind Pittsburgh and the New York Rangers for the East's top spot.
"We're just finding ways to win," said Brandon Dubinsky, who's picked up three assists in his last two games, and has a goal with five assists over his last six games versus the Penguins.
Curtis McElhinney made 44 saves on Tuesday in his first action since Dec. 3, but Sergei Bobrovsky will likely start Thursday. Bobrovsky has won eight straight games, and is 19-5-2 with a 1.94 goals-against average, a .932 save percentage and three shutouts. He's won four of six career starts vs. Pittsburgh after joining the Blue Jackets in 2012.
Columbus' winning streak matches the NHL's longest this season set by the Philadelphia Flyers from Nov. 27 to Dec. 14. While not currently on a winning streak, Pittsburgh improved to 8-0-2 over its last 10 games following Tuesday's 7-2 rout of the Rangers.
"It will be interesting to see how it shakes out down the stretch here going into the playoffs because right now it's tough for the (Metropolitan Division) to lose," the Penguins' Ian Cole told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
"You go on a seven-game winning streak (from Dec. 1 to Dec. 14), and you don't really make up any ground. That's unique, but when you're in that position, you have to try and keep winning games and stay as focused as best you can."
Focused would be appropriate to describe Crosby's play. After missing the first six games of the season to recover from a concussion, Crosby has been red-hot, recording a point in 22 of 27 games. The Penguins are 10-1-1 when Crosby has had at least two points in a game this season.
Crosby will be looking for a point in his 10th consecutive game at Nationwide Arena. Overall, he has four goals and 10 assists during his streak in Columbus, and 22 points (six goals, 16 assists) in 17 career games against the Blue Jackets.
Matt Murray made 26 saves against the Rangers to improve to 13-2-1 with a 1.85 GAA, a .938 save percentage and a shutout this season. He won in his only career start against Columbus, 2-0 on Dec. 21, 2015, in his second NHL game.
Marc-Andre Fleury is 8-4-2 with a 2.28 GAA and a .928 save percentage in 14 career starts versus the Blue Jackets. Three of those wins have come in Columbus.