Columbus takes aim at Buffalo, Metro leaders

The Columbus Blue Jackets have overcome reported internal strife and the uncertain future involving a pair of their stars to reside just four points out of first place in the Metropolitan Division.

The Blue Jackets plan to remain focused on the task at hand Tuesday when they return from the NHL All-Star break to host the Buffalo Sabres.

Forward Artemi Panarin and two-time Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky are set to become unrestricted free agents following the season, leading to speculation that perhaps one of the Russian stars could be shuffled out of Ohio by the trade deadline.

Panarin had been producing at a torrid pace, registering 19 points (10 goals, nine assists) in his last 14 games.

"I don't think he knows what he's going to do," coach John Tortorella said in regard to the future of the 27-year-old Panarin, who leads the team in assists (34) and points (53). "But we can't do anything about that. We've just got to keep going about our business."

Panarin left quite the impression on the Sabres earlier this season, capping a three-point performance (two goals, one assist) by scoring 31 seconds into overtime of a 5-4 win on Oct. 27. Linemates Cam Atkinson (two goals, one assist) and Pierre-Luc Dubois (one goal, two assists) also had three points in the victory.

Joonas Korpisalo, who turned aside 34 shots in that outing, has received an uptick in playing time with Bobrovsky coupling inconsistent play around an unspecified incident that resulted in a one-game suspension.

"He's improving as a goalie, there's no question about that," Tortorella said of the 24-year-old Korpisalo, who owns a 9-3-2 record this season and a 3-1-0 mark with a 1.96 goals-against average and .935 save percentage in his last four starts.

"I know everybody wants to frame it because of the stuff that went on with Bob; to me, it's apples and oranges as to why Korpi is playing. He's just played well. ... He's played better than Bob. That's why he's played."

While Tortorella hasn't tipped his hand on a starter for Tuesday's game, Bobrovsky owns a 10-4-1 mark with a 2.50 goals-against average and .921 save percentage in 15 career encounters with the Sabres.

Buffalo has seen its once-promising season go south over the last two months, as it matched a franchise-best 10-game winning streak in November, then had 16 losses in its last 23 games (7-12-4).

"I think (the break is) great. It gives us a reboot, a fresh start," Sabres coach Phil Housley told the Buffalo News. "Getting back to what we did in training camp. Getting back to work and focusing on areas we really need to improve."

Special teams would be a good place to start as the Sabres' power play is just 2-for-27 in the last 10 games while their penalty kill has permitted four goals in the last four contests.

Buffalo's Jeff Skinner (team-leading 30 goals) was held off the scoresheet in all three games during the team's trek through Western Canada prior to the break.

Captain Jack Eichel (club-best 36 assists, 52 points) and Skinner each scored in the All-Star Game on Saturday and registered two points in the team's first meeting with Columbus. Eichel notched two assists while Skinner joined Jason Pominville by scoring and setting up a goal.

--Field Level Media

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