Four-and-a-half months or 144 days.
However you prefer to view it, the Columbus Blue Jackets haven’t played a game in a long, long time. Technically, the drought will continue until Sunday when they open a five-game series with the Toronto Maple Leafs as part of the Stanley Cup Qualifiers. But after such an extended time away, what will happen Thursday night in Toronto’s “bubble” designed to keep the Eastern Conference postseason teams healthy will be enough for the Blue Jackets.
44-14-12 (100 points)
ROSTER / SCHEDULE
7 P.M. – THURSDAY, JULY 30
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FOX SPORTS GO
Columbus is set to take on the Boston Bruins in an exhibition, which will be the only game it’ll play ahead of its matchup with the Maple Leafs. The puck will drop at 7 p.m. in a fan-free Scotiabank Arena.
For players and coaches alike, this will be a much-needed opportunity after enduring what everybody hopes will be the longest break in regular-season action they’ll ever experience. It comes after two-and-a-half weeks of full-team practices that first took place in Columbus before shifting to Toronto on Sunday when the team entered the hub city.
“I think it'll put a little bit of edge into the game,” John Tortorella said. “All they've been doing is practicing. Everybody's sick of practicing. I'm telling you, you can talk to any of the other coaches, I'm sure everybody's just sick of practicing and they want to play the games. This will get us closer. I just don't think you can ever simulate what is needed in a playoff or a play-in game here with an exhibition game.”
Over the past couple of weeks, the Blue Jackets took part in a number of intrasquad scrimmages. Now, those are over. They’ll finally get to take on a group of players wearing another team’s logo. Tortorella thinks the intensity of Thursday’s exhibition will be “a level above our scrimmages” even if it won’t replicate every aspect of a postseason game.
For Columbus, it’ll also represent a chance for a now-healthy team to get up to speed together.
More so than maybe any other team in the NHL, the Blue Jackets were hit by injuries in the regular season. Various top players, including Seth Jones, Oliver Bjokstrand, Cam Atkinson, Alexandre Texier and Dean Kukan, missed time. Still, Columbus managed a 33-22-15 record, leading to Tortorella becoming a Jack Adams Award finalist.
On Thursday evening, the Blue Jackets will have the vast majority of one-timed injured players in their lineup, offering them one game’s worth of action together ahead of the postseason.
“Obviously there's a lot to focus in on system-wise, but just to get a game speed under your belt and get a feel for what the rink is going to be like, obviously with no fans and different things that it's going to be like,” Boone Jenner said. “Just getting a taste of that and obviously playing against another team, it's always different than scrimmaging or practicing against each other. So we're excited to just get out there and get that game under our belt.”
A win or a loss on Thursday doesn’t ultimately matter. Especially after such a prolonged pause in play.
Tortorella will tinker with lines, the team will try to spend some time working on the penalty kill and power play, the goalies will get one last chance to compete and everybody on the ice will try to ready themselves for Sunday when it all begins. It’s the ultimate tune-up game.
“You only get one exhibition game,” Zach Werenski said. “It's been four-and-a-half months since we've played a game. Just trying to get up to speed so we're ready to go come Toronto.”
Here's a look at tonight's projected lines for the Blue Jackets:
Nick Foligno-Pierre-Luc Dubois-Oliver Bjorkstrand
Gus Nyquist-Boone Jenner-Cam Atkinson
Alexandre Texier-Alexander Wennberg-Emil Bemstrom
Eric Robinson-Riley Nash-Liam Foudy
Zach Werenski-Seth Jones
Vladislav Gavrikov-David Savard
Ryan Murray-Dean Kukan
Scott Harrington-Markus Nutivaara
Goaltender: Joonas Korpisalo/Elvis Merzlikins
- Goalies in the spotlight. On Saturday, Tortorella will decide whether he goes with Elvis Merzlikins or Joonas Korpisalo in the net, so Thursday's exhibition will perhaps be the last time for both of them to make impressions on the coaching staff. Tortorella plans to play them equally, saying they won't even mind who starts. The eventual decision won't solely be based on what happens versus the Bruins, but the exhibition will certainly be a factor.
- Knocking off the rust. It doesn't matter whether somebody was injured before the stoppage of the regular season or completely healthy. Nobody on the team has played an NHL game in over 1/3 of a year. Though the exhibition isn't much more than a glorified intrasquad scrimmage, it will give players a chance to skate in an arena without fans against another team. As Tortorella has harped on, the Blue Jackets can't afford to get behind in a five-game series, so getting up to speed on Thursday will be imperative.
- Testing out the lines. Tortorella insists he doesn't know what his lines will look like yet when the Stanley Cup Qualifiers open this weekend. He has said in the past that he thinks he has two lines and two defensive pairings set. However, he also said on Wednesday that he plans to mix and match players with each other, testing out combinations. No, it might not allow some players to develop a ton of chemistry in the one exhibition game they get. But Tortorella would rather see certain players alongside others to evaluate his options, which will happen on Thursday.