The NHL kicked off the busiest two weeks of the offseason Sunday with the release of the 2014-15 schedule. In a matter of days the 2014 NHL Entry Draft will be upon us (well, Philadelphia) followed shortly thereafter by the frenzy that is free agency. Before the offseason drama consumes the attention of hockey fanatics, let’s take a closer look at the Jackets early games in 2014-15.
The Jackets have made a name for themselves as a late season team, playing their best hockey in “must win” scenarios. However, if the boys in Union Blue want to be more than a fringe playoff team they must tally more wins in the first half of the season. Mark your calendars, Columbus. Here’s a look at ten pivotal Blue Jackets games before Christmas:
Rangers at Blue Jackets
Saturday October 11, 7PM EST
The home opener is always a significant game, but the importance of this match up isn’t merely symbolic. Columbus opens their home slate against a bitter division rival who also happens to be the defending Eastern Conference champions. The Jackets finished just three points shy of the Rangers in the Metropolitan Division standings last year.
When Columbus joined the Metro Division last season, the NHL hoped the embers of rivalry would slowly warm over the years. Instead a very tightly contested final month of play and a certain former captain pushing Bobrovsky (and his way out of the hearts of the Blue Jackets faithful) ignited a fierce rivalry.
A few former Rangers here, a few former Jackets there, and suddenly without little outside influence or time a rivalry was born. Expect packed penalty boxes and postseason intensity in this early season grudge match.
Blue Jackets at Senators
Saturday October 18, 7PM EST
The two points on the line in Ottawa are more critical due to what follows more so than the game against the Senators itself. The first of the Jackets’ two visits to the Canadian Capital kicks off a brutal road trip. They’ll visit San Jose, Anaheim, and defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles following this Saturday tilt with the Senators.
Though early, no team with serious playoff aspirations can afford a four game pointless streak. It’s critical the Jackets start this roadie on a positive note and pick up a pair of points in Ottawa.
Blue Jackets at Devils
Saturday November 1, 7PM EST
The Devils finished sixth in a tightly contested Metropolitan Division last season, just eight points shy of the second place Rangers. Every point earned or conceded in divisional play will be crucial in 2014-15. Beginning with this trip to the Prudential Center six of the Jackets first ten games in November are against division opponents. This early November stretch could ultimately decide the Jackets Metro division fate.
Hurricanes at Blue Jackets
Tuesday November 4, 7PM EST
Blue Jackets at Hurricanes
Friday November 7, 7PM EST
Consecutive “four point” games are on the line in this early season home-and-home against Carolina. The Hurricanes proved to be worthy opponents picking up five points in five games against Columbus last season. Keeping pace, the Canes averaged a mere 0.4 GPG less than the Jackets in their first season series as division opponents.
Both teams are strong enough between the pipes to steal games they have no business winning. In addition to the sturdy if not stellar Cam Ward, Carolina boasts one of the leagues premier relief goaltenders in Anton Khudobin. Blue Jackets fans won’t soon forget Khudobin’s 47-save effort that lifted the Canes over Columbus at Nationwide Arena March 18th. This home-and-home should offer an opportunity for revenge on Khudobin.
In a division where standings won’t be decided until late March or April these games could come back to haunt whichever squad fails to capitalize.
Blue Jackets at Flyers
Friday November 14, 7PM EST
Blue Jackets at Flyers
Saturday November 22, 7PM EST
Two trips to the Wells Fargo Center bookend a three game mid-November home stand at Nationwide. Former Blue Jackets Steve Mason and Jakub Voracek play prominent roles for the Flyers. Rising star Sean Couturier, taken by Philly with the Jackets’ 2011 first round selection, serves as a painful reminder of the infamous deal that brought Jeff Carter to Columbus for half a season.
The Flyers were a miraculous comeback away from a season sweep at the hands of the Jackets in 2013-14. Columbus won the season series 3-1-0 racking up 17 goals in the process. Despite a general dismantling the Flyers the Jackets still had to settle for a Wild Card spot finishing the season a single point behind Philadelphia and third place in the Metro. Columbus must continue their offensive dominance over Philadelphia if they hope to jump them in the standings in 2014-15.
Red Wings at Blue Jackets
Tuesday November 18, 7PM EST
Break out the #DefendNWA and #WeAreThe5thLine hashtags, people. The Red Wings and the Legion of the Octopus are invading the Arena District November 18th. Red Wings fans have a knack for taking over buildings with Columbus being one of the most consistent victims of Detroit’s home-away-from-home ice advantage.
Expect a loud physical affair when these long time Central Division foes reignite the rivalry in front of a reenergized Columbus fan base. These teams may no longer share a division, but that doesn’t mean crucial points aren’t on the line. Columbus and Detroit narrowly eked out Wild Card spots in 2013-14. Seeding came down to a tiebreaker as both teams ended the season with 93 points. Should the Jackets find themselves in the Wild Card hunt again in 2014-15 this game will ultimately prove pivotal.
Penguins at Blue Jackets
Saturday December 13, 7PM EST
This is the first game between bitter rivals since a heated first round series in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Fleury vs Bobrovsky. Dubinsky on Crosby. Need I say more?
Capitals at Blue Jackets
Thursday December 18, 7PM EST
The first, and only divisional, tilt in a 5-game home stretch to close out 2014. After missing out on the playoffs for the first time since 2006-07 the Caps will be hungry for a return to postseason action. Columbus split the season series with Washington last year, but the Jackets dominated the last two matches outscoring Ovechkin and company 10-3.
Columbus has a prime opportunity to end 2014 on a hot steak as they close out December with five straight home games. Unlike 2013-14 the Blue Jackets end the coming season with a favorable schedule. If the Jackets can muster their trademark late season intensity early on and rack up key points, earning home ice advantage would provide a huge boost in the quest for the franchise’s first playoff series win.