Jackets expected top line showing instant chemistry

October 9, 2015

Injuries ravaged the Columbus Blue Jackets and ultimately cost them a chance at the playoffs last season.

A similar situation may be the only thing that stops them from qualifying this time.

After making one of the biggest moves of the summer, the Blue Jackets look to get off to a strong start Friday night against the visiting New York Rangers in the opener of a home-and-home series.

Columbus lost the most games to injury or illness in the NHL last season at 512, 23 more than Colorado and 130 ahead of Buffalo.

After winning their first two games, the Blue Jackets lost 17 of 21 and never recovered enough to mount a serious playoff push. With their health improving, the Jackets capped the season with a 15-1-1 stretch to finish fifth in the Metropolitan Division with a 42-35-5 record, and coach Todd Richards said "there's confidence, belief in the room."

That only increased June 30 when they acquired Brandon Saad in a seven-player trade with Stanley Cup champion Chicago and signed him to a six-year, $36 million extension a few days later.

The left wing, who turns 23 later this month, had career highs of 23 goals and 29 assists last season, scoring eight times in the playoffs.

"It's the experience of being there and going on deep playoff runs - it's really helped my game grow," Saad told the team's official website shortly after the trade. "It's really incredible for my career and it's helped me progress a lot.

"I think I can go and be a leader. I'm sure they have plenty of leaders (and) guys who have been around the league a while. They know what they're doing."

Saad is expected to be on Columbus' top line with All-Stars Nick Foligno and Ryan Johansen, the team's top scorers from last season at 73 and 71 points.

It hasn't taken long for the trio to find some chemistry, combining for 10 goals and 25 points in three preseason games.

"I've been really impressed with how fast we've been able to click," Foligno said. "It says a lot about the guys I'm playing with.

"With Brandon, (it's been great) just being able to play with him and get to know him, and Joey's picking up right where he left off ... we're obviously so comfortable playing together. To have a guy like Brandon who can jell with us and play the right way has been a lot of fun."

Sergei Bobrovsky is back in net after going 30-17-3 with a 2.69 goals-against average in 51 games. Like the rest of the Blue Jackets, Bobrovsky was excellent to close out 2014-15, posting a 14-1-1 record and 2.29 GAA in his last 17 games.

One of those defeats, however, came against the Rangers on April 6. Bobrovsky stopped 38 shots before giving up a goal to Derek Stepan with 50 seconds to play in overtime of the 4-3 loss.

New York won three of the four matchups last season, including three straight with all of them decided by one goal.

The Rangers are looking to play the role of spoilers again. They beat the Blackhawks 3-2 after they raised their championship banner Wednesday, getting 32 saves from Henrik Lundqvist. The most important came with a minute left, when Lundqvist stopped the puck before it was poked into the net from under his pads. However, the goal was waved off and video review was inconclusive.

Lundqvist gets the start again and will likely get a third straight Saturday in the home opener against Columbus.

"Hank has worked hard ... and I think this is a good way to get Hank going, playing and feeling good about his game," coach Alain Vigneault told the team's official website.

Lundqvist has a 1.64 GAA while winning three straight meetings with the Blue Jackets.

Rick Nash is looking to bounce back from his pointless effort at Chicago. The left wing's 42 goals ranked third in the league last season, but he only had one in four meetings against his former club.

Stepan, who scored Wednesday, has three goals and five assists in his last four matchups.