While the Columbus Blue Jackets have had little trouble beating the Toronto Maple Leafs in recent years, they've yet to face this season's lineup featuring some of the NHL's budding stars.
Columbus continues its season-high seven-game homestand by playing host to Toronto on Wednesday night in the first of three meetings this season.
The Blue Jackets (35-15-5) have won two straight over the Maple Leafs by a combined 8-2 score, and have taken six of the last nine meetings.
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But this is not a Maple Leafs team that's made the postseason once since 2006. Toronto (26-18-11) earned a split of a four-game homestand with a 7-1 rout of the New York Islanders on Tuesday.
"When (we) do the right things, we're an awfully tough team to play against," said
Auston Matthews, who led the way with two goals. That gives him four in his last five games and 27 on the season to lead all rookies. He's also chipped in 19 assists.
Columbus forward Brandon Saad, a teammate of Matthews during last fall's World Cup of Hockey, is impressed by the top overall pick in the 2016 draft.
"He's got size, speed, skill. He's got every combination you need to be a great player," Saad told the Columbus Dispatch. "I think it shows with the year he's having. He's a young kid, but he's a helluva player."
Fellow rookies William Nylander (goal, assist) and Mitch Marner (assist) also showed up on the scoresheet Tuesday. Marner leads all rookies with 48 points (15 goals, 33 assists), one more than Patrik Laine of the Winnipeg Jets and two more than Matthews. Nylander is fourth with 38 points (15 goals, 23 assists).
The Blue Jackets are 8-10-1 since their franchise-record 16-game winning streak after dropping a 3-2 decision to the New York Rangers on Monday.
Reduced production from some players who excelled earlier this season could explain the Blue Jackets' struggles.
Over the last 19 games, Sam Gagner has just six assists after posting 14 goals and 14 assists in his first 35 contests. Saad has three goals and three assists -- a big turnaround after notching 14 goals and 19 assists in his first 36 games. Rookie Zach Werenski has six points (two goals, four assists) after posting six goals and 19 assists in his first 36 games.
Also, the Blue Jackets lost Scott Hartnell (13 goals, 17 assists in 55 games) to a lower-body injury Monday. While Hartnell's status for this game is not yet known, Columbus recalled Oliver Bjorkstrand from Cleveland of the AHL on Tuesday.
Bjorkstrand leads the minor-league club with 14 goals and is tied for the team lead with 26 points in 37 games. He has one assist in five games with the Jackets this season.
"If he gets a chance, this is a good opportunity for him," Columbus coach John Tortorella told the Dispatch. "... I thought he was going to crack (the lineup) earlier than right now. Maybe this is a chance for him to push the door open."
The Blue Jackets went 0-for-4 on the power play, and are 0-for-14 with the man advantage over the last nine contests.
"I think it's execution," Columbus' Brandon Dubinsky told the team's official website after the loss. "We have to execute better, both units. ... Special teams are going to be huge down the stretch. We did a good job killing, we got to do a better job executing on our power play and if we do that we'll be fine."
Surprisingly, Columbus is 9-5-1 at home when it fails to score a power-play goal -- and 10-3-0 when it does.
Since last winning consecutive starts on Jan. 8 and Jan. 17, the Blue Jackets' Sergei Bobrovsky is 3-6-1 with a 2.97 goals-against average and .901 save percentage.
Upon joining the Blue Jackets in 2013, though, Bobrovsky is 5-2-0 with a 1.87 GAA, a .934 save percentage and two shutouts against Toronto.
After allowing only one goal on a penalty shot Tuesday, Toronto's Frederik Andersen could rest after earning his 100th NHL win, opening the door for Curtis McElhinney to face his former team.
A journeyman who's played with six teams in nine seasons, McElhinney was in his fourth season as Bobrovsky's backup before being waived Jan. 9, two days after allowing a season-high five goals in a narrow loss to the Rangers.
McElhinney is 2-2-0 with a 2.12 GAA and .935 save percentage as Andersen's backup.