Blue Jackets battling COVID, road woes ahead of trip to Buffalo

NHL

The Columbus Blue Jackets are struggling on the road and the Buffalo Sabres are struggling at home, so something will have to give when the Blue Jackets visit the Sabres on Monday.

The Blue Jackets are 9-3-1 on home ice but only 5-10-0 on the road this season, with seven of those away losses coming within the last month. The Jackets have a 2-7-1 record over their last 10 games, eight of which have been played on the road.

Working against Columbus on this road trip will be three players being placed in the NHL’s COVID-19 protocol: forwards Boone Jenner and Jack Roslovic and defenseman Gabriel Carlsson.

The team canceled practice Sunday to prevent further spread and promoted Jake Christiansen on emergency recall, but the game as of Sunday evening was still scheduled to be played.

The Blue Jackets’ most recent road setback was a 5-2 loss in Edmonton on Thursday. The Oilers scored the game’s first four goals, and Columbus matched its season high with 45 shots allowed.

Edmonton’s first two goals came on the same power play, thanks to simultaneous penalties to Jakub Voracek and Elvis Merzlikins.

“I think we played well 5-on-5, in the first period especially, to try to beat them,” Blue Jackets defenseman Vladislav Gavrikov said. “But special teams mean a lot right now, and it’s always tough when they score and you miss just a couple of your chances.”

The Jackets were scoreless in three power-play chances on Thursday, and are only 1-for-15 with the extra attacker over their last nine games. The Columbus penalty-kill unit has also been shaky, as opponents have scored on 6-of-12 power plays over the Blue Jackets’ last five games.

Merzlikins was pulled after allowing four goals on 29 shots on Thursday, giving the goaltender an .874 save percentage over his last seven outings. Joonas Korpisalo stopped all 15 shots faced in the relief outing, and might be in line to start against the Sabres given Merzlikins’ recent form.

The visit to Buffalo could unlock some good memories for Columbus, as the Jackets earned a 7-4 road win over the Sabres back on November 22.

That previous loss to the Blue Jackets was part of a disastrous 1-7-1 run for the Sabres in their last nine games in Buffalo. Wins in any arena have been hard to come by for the Sabres this season, though the team is on a four-game (2-0-2) points streak.

The Sabres salvaged a point from Friday’s 3-2 overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Down 2-0 through the first 31 minutes, Buffalo equalized on goals from Zemgus Girgensons and Rasmus Dahlin, before Pittsburgh’s Jeff Carter collected the OT winner.

“There’s a lot of resiliency in this team, you can tell, just from everyone around me,” said Buffalo’s Casey Fitzgerald, who recorded an assist in his NHL debut. “Just everyone’s trying to amp their game every night no matter what the circumstances are. There’s no excuses with these guys and that’s a fun team to go to battle with.”

Malcolm Subban almost single-handedly (literally and figuratively) kept Buffalo afloat on Friday. Subban stopped 45 of 48 Penguins shots, including a save-of-the-year candidate of a glove stop to rob Evan Rodrigues.

That tremendous performance could earn another start for Subban, who was playing in his first game since December 4 due to a lower-body injury. If not Subban, Akko-Pekka Luukkonen (with a 1.96 goals against average in five games) could get the call.

Sabres goalie Dustin Tokarski has left COVID protocols and is back skating with the team, but it isn’t known when Tokarski will be ready to play.

Meanwhile, this game will also feature the much-anticipated debut of Alex Tuch in a Sabres uniform. Tuch joined the team via trade in November after scoring 139 points (61 goals) in four seasons with Vegas but has been in recovery from shoulder surgery.

–Field Level Media

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