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25-22-13

Blue Jackets-Devils Preview

AP - Sports

With the Olympic break over, the Columbus Blue Jackets begin the stretch run with the playoffs in their sights.

Getting Marian Gaborik back should certainly help.

Gaborik is expected to return as Columbus begins its postseason push Thursday night in New Jersey looking to sweep its four-game season series against the Devils.

Columbus (29-24-5) returns from the break tied with Washington for fourth place in the Metropolitan Division with 63 points. That total also puts it slightly behind Detroit for the final wild-card berth in the Eastern Conference.

The Blue Jackets have gone to the playoffs once in franchise history, getting swept by the Red Wings in 2009.

"Our focus has to be to start racking up some points here because every one is so important," center Brandon Dubinsky told the team's official website. "The break was great for our group at the time; we were playing a lot of games, guys were banged up, tired. We're excited, geared up and that's the way we've been practicing."

Columbus will need to survive the next few weeks without one of its top defenseman. Fedor Tyutin, who is fourth on the team with 20 assists and third in ice time, is expected to miss the next two to three weeks because of an ankle injury suffered while playing for Russia in the Olympics.

While Tyutin will be out, Gaborik, who has been played just once since Nov. 14, is expected to return after being medically cleared to come back from a broken collarbone during the break. Gaborik, who had five goals and seven assists in 18 games, should add some scoring punch to a team that already averages 2.86 goals, among the best in the East.

"I worked hard over the Olympic break to get back, and hopefully it's not going to take me too long to get into game shape," Gaborik said. "I feel pretty good out there; I'm looking forward to this ... it's been a while. It's going to be a tough stretch, but every team is in the same situation.

"We're right on the bubble, and we want to make sure we have a good start and even better finish. This group has done a lot since the start of the year, we're playing more consistent and hopefully it graduates to us playing even better."

Columbus has won all three previous matchups, including a 2-1 shootout victory in New Jersey on Dec. 27. Gaborik scored in a 4-1 home win Oct. 22 after failing to find the back of the net against the Devils in his final seven games with the Rangers.

The Devils (24-22-13) are also within striking distance of the playoffs, though they will have to pass five other teams in the conference to claim a wild-card berth. New Jersey was in the midst of a 2-0-2 stretch before falling 3-0 in its last game before the Olympics at Washington.

The Devils will need to produce more offensively if they're to make a run. New Jersey averages 26.1 shots, the fewest in the NHL, and has scored 135 goals, among the fewest.

''What we need to do is score the one extra goal a game,'' said forward Jaromir Jagr, who played for the Czech Republic in the Olympics. "We need to keep the same defense we played. The goaltenders have been awesome. We have to find the one extra, extra goal in the game. That would make a huge difference."

The Devils are 5-1-1 in their last seven home games, giving up one goal or none in five of those.

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