Despite the hanging of black crepe by the gloomier elements of the Columbus Blue Jackets fan base, the team is not out of playoff contention, despite garnering just 1 of 8 possible points in the first four games of a crucial five installment road trip. However, make no mistake about it — what was a moderately steep hill a week ago is now a veritable mountain — six points out of the eighth slot with 18 games remaining.
The Jackets are undoubtedly cursing the hockey powers that placed them in the Western Conference instead of the East. Columbus has a huge winning edge against Eastern opponents, and would be squarely in the heart of that race, instead of struggling to retain playoff relevance. However, reality is reality, and they must deal with the high octane, pressure packed, razor thin race that is the West. On the positive side, the Blue Jackets have a game or more in hand on all of the competition, have six games remaining against Eastern Conference opponents, and know that the teams in front of them have a plethora of games against each other, enhancing the ability to make up some ground. Still, it is likely that something on the order of 13 – 5 will be necessary to reach the Promised Land. It is not outside the realm of possibility for the Blue Jackets , who started the season with a 14 – 6 string, and had an 11-3-3 streak going before it was so rudely interrupted by the recent unpleasantness. However, only the most rabidly unrealistic fan would tab the prospects as probable.
The shame of the situation is that the Blue Jackets have not been playing bad hockey, for the most part. To the contrary, most observers would say that Columbus has been playing the best hockey it has ever played since the All Star break. The current road trip, however, has been characterized by untimely miscues, freaky bounces and officiating that has raised the collective blood pressures of fans and coaches, and has resurrected the suspicions of the conspiracy theorists that have the NHL (and possibly covert Winnipeg or Hamilton loyalists) working against the Jackets’ interests. Here are the lowlights of the trip:
- The Jackets took a 1 – 0 lead into the 3rd period at Nashville, where they have not won since the Civil War, despite having a goal taken away by the on-ice officials and the Toronto War Room. To those who saw the replays, MacKenzie stuffs home a puck that was sitting near the left post, and it appears under Rinne’s left pad/skate deep in the goal. No signal is given by the referee, because the referee is nowhere in sight. Rinne reaches back into the goal with his glove, and dejectedly sweeps the puck out of the net, as the ref skates up, inexplicably waving the “no goal” signal. After a review in Toronto that took substantially longer than the Gettysburg address, the ruling on the ice was confirmed, apparently based upon the fact that the puck was obscured by some combination of Rinne and the padding at the base of the goal, despite the fact that both Rinne and the padding are inside the goal. In the game itself, two blue line shots – one bouncing off the face of defenseman Jan Hejda , and a bad rebound permitted by Mathieu Garon gave the Preds the 3 – 2 win.
- Against Vancouver, the Blue Jackets played a magnificent hockey game in all the zones, ultimately falling to the Canucks in the eighth round of a shootout. Scottie Upshall scored in his Columbus debut, the defense kept the potent Vancouver offense at bay, and Steve Mason was stellar in goal. Still, the Blue Jackets had opportunities that they just could not convert. This was truly a playoff caliber game, and the silly skills contest eventually determined a winner. Justice would have been served by a tie in this one.
- What goes up, must come down. Against Edmonton, the Blue Jackets played a sloppy, lackluster game in all three zones. This was the classic trap game, wedged between the fast paced Vancouver track meet and a really big game against Calgary the following night. Down 3 – 0, due to a combination of spotty goaltending, defensive miscues and the lack of offensive execution, Columbus nonetheless scrambled back to within a goal before Edmonton converted the empty netter. Earlier in the year, this would have been a 6-1 rout. Upshall notched another goal in the loss.
- The following night, individual lapses again doomed Columbus, who surrendered two sets of rapid fire goals. Lapses in defensive coverage were the hallmark of this one, enhanced by a bizarre bounce off of Rivet’s stick, Mason’s shoulder and into the goal. The officials were wildly inconsistent — ignoring cross-checking one second, then making a marginal call the next. Columbus outplayed Calgary for long stretches, but ultimately could not overcome its own mistakes and the failure to convert opportunities. Calvert and Vermette missed penalty shots, and Voracek failed on some prime opportunities.
Thus, a road trip that carried the hopes of resurgence has instead placed Columbus on the precipice. Voracek, Umberger and Vermette have gone silent, and defenses have brutalized Nash, who has cooled from his torrid pace of just a week ago. Mason has been unable to make the critical save, needed all the more because of the lack of offensive production. Still, except for Edmonton, the effort has been there, and the overall quality of play has been a big improvment. Upshall and Lepisto look like keepers, and Rivet has started contributing as well. The call-ups of Clitsome and Calvert are proving to be brilliant, and it will be interesting to see how the team responds once Brassard returns.
The task facing the Blue Jackets is a daunting one, with another untimely loss likely to be fatal to their playoff hopes. The talent is there, and the necessary streak is doable, but the mistakes will need to be eliminated, the opportunities converted, and the bounces will need to start going the Jackets’ way.