Blue Jackets Must Find Consistent Road Success

The season to date so far for the Columbus Blue Jackets can be summarized into one major stat. It shows a tale of two different teams. Take a look at their home/road splits.

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The Blue Jackets are a very respectable 9-3-1 at the friendly confines of Nationwide Arena. It seems the crowd and the cannon are doing a good job of providing energy to the home team while distracting the opposition. But it’s a completely different story on the road.

The Blue Jackets are just 4-8-0 on the road as they enter Saturday’s matchup against the Seattle Kraken at Climate Pledge Arena. This includes a five-game road losing streak dating back to Nov 27, a 6-3 loss in St. Louis. Their last road win happened in Buffalo on Nov 22, a 7-4 win over the Sabres.

So what gives here? Why do we have a case of the Blue Jackets playing Jekyll & Hyde based on the location of the game? What is ailing them on the road & what can they do about it? We’ll try to come up with some answers here although it’s not the easiest task to complete as each game is independent and different things happen that lead to game results. But perhaps some trends can be uncovered.

Major Road Woes

We mentioned the five-game losing streak the Blue Jackets were facing going into their game against the Kraken. A quick look at their stats reveals an ugly picture.

The Blue Jackets have been outscored 23-10 in those five games and have allowed at least three goals in all of them including allowing five or more three times. The obvious place to start is with their defense. Within each of those five games, you can point to stretches where they’ve looked completely overwhelmed.

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Too many mistakes. Too many breakdowns. Too much chasing the play. This led to many scoring chances for the opposition while expending most of their energy trying to play defense. And when the defense is in chase mode, the goaltender can only do so much. You can argue their two best games of that trip were the games Daniil Tarasov started. He limited the Stars and Capitals to three goals each and allowed his team a chance to win.

But that leads into part two of their road mess. There simply wasn’t enough goal scoring. Scoring 10 goals in five games won’t lead to many victories especially when they average giving up almost five goals per game (4.60-2.00 per game on average.)

Once the games got out of control, it was a downward spiral in which they couldn’t recover. The key in this is that the team couldn’t recover. It was clear that they were dealing with multiple issues within these games that blame couldn’t be pinned on one player. Collectively, the team struggled.

It’s not only did they struggle, they were never in most of these games. It wasn’t even close. Sure they played the Stars to 3-2 and were in it most of the night against the Capitals before falling 3-1. And yes they dominated the third in Toronto before losing 5-4. But the reason they had a chance to dominate the third was because they were down 5-1 going into it.

A sign of a good team is being able to manage the game when the opposition is pressing. That good team can withstand the pressure and flip the game into their favor. So far anyway, the Blue Jackets have yet to consistently demonstrate an ability to flip momentum to their side after an ambush by the opposition. That third period in Toronto was encouraging in the sense they were able to outscore the Leafs 3-0. But they couldn’t play that type of game earlier when the Leafs had all the momentum.

When the key moments in games have risen up, it’s the opposition who’s run with the opportunity only to see the Blue Jackets watch them. If the team wants to start enjoying road success, they have to do a better job of managing key moments.

There’s going to be pushes. There’s going to be momentum swings. Wins and losses a lot of times are decided by how a team handles those situations. Who will rise up and make a game-changing play? Who stands up under pressure and who folds? There hasn’t been enough of this from the Blue Jackets and it’s reflected in their record on the road.

A Chance to Right the Wrong on the Road

There’s no time like the present for the Blue Jackets to start getting it right on the road. They start a huge five-game trip in Seattle and then embark on western Canada before heading back east to Buffalo to end the trip. This trip is shaping up to be their most difficult task to date this season.

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After facing the Kraken, the Blue Jackets go to Vancouver, then Edmonton and then Calgary before heading back east. In other words, these first four games feature teams who…

  • 1. Seattle: have defeated all of Florida, Carolina and Washington this season.
  • 2. Vancouver: who are on a roll after hiring Bruce Boudreau to be their head coach.
  • 3. Edmonton: have Connor McDavid and others ready to dominate.
  • 4. Calgary: who are one of the hottest teams in hockey thanks to a renewed focus on defense.

Don’t count out Buffalo on that last game either. By then the Blue Jackets will have traveled across the country to end their trip. How much energy will they have left knowing that they’ll be home right after? Coach Brad Larsen will have to make sure his team is ready.

Brad Larsen Columbus Blue Jackets
Brad Larsen has a tough job on this road trip to make sure his team is ready every night. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The task at hand will be very difficult but it’s not impossible. If the Blue Jackets want to find success on this road trip, they need to get back to basics and do the things that make them successful.

First, they must keep their game simple and within their structure. All of these teams have players good enough to break open games on their own. The Blue Jackets must do the little things well (complete passes, clear the puck, make the correct read) when given the chance.

Second, they must win special teams. This is one area they’ve done well in over the course of the season. But it takes on more importance on the road and against teams who will challenge those units. They must keep the game at five-on-five as much as possible.

Third, their defense must step up. Too often, the opposition gets a free and clear path to a scoring chance. Then when one goes in, 2-3 more go in right behind it. They need to play well in front of their goaltender while trying to keep guys on the outside. It’s easier said than done. But they have to start somewhere.

Related: Blue Jackets Showing Their Youth In Recent Games

Fourth, their offense needs to produce. Two goals per game won’t be enough. They have to have long stretches of pressure and controlling the play. The longer they attack, the longer the opposition has to defend. Some guys have struggled in recent weeks. They need to find their games in order for the team to give themselves a chance.

Finally for now, the goaltending needs to find their form no matter who starts. Joonas Korpisalo is back from illness. Elvis Merzlikins is expected to get most of the starts (including Saturday night in Seattle), but he needs to find consistency. He’s been pulled in recent road starts in Nashville and Toronto. It’s not all on him but he does have to find ways of making big saves in key moments.

A Fresh Start

The beginning of the trip is a fresh start for the Blue Jackets and an opportunity to find success and consistency on the road. If they can apply the things from above, they can stay in these games. But if they allow 2-3 goals in quick order as they’ve done in recent road games, it could make for a long trip.

This trip will either propel the Blue Jackets into 2022 on a high or it will put some serious questions around this season. They don’t have to go 5-0. But they certainly can’t go 0-5. If anything, this trip will show how much they’ve learned from their recent experiences. Have they taken these lessons to heart?

Keep it simple. Win special teams. Step up when given the chance. That’s the formula the Blue Jackets will need if they hope to come home feeling good about themselves from this long-distance journey.