As the Blue Jackets continue their effort to scratch and claw their way up the standings in the brutal Western Conference playoff race by hosting the Colorado Avalanche tonight at Nationwide Arena, a number of subplots are weaving their way through the fabric of the season, and are worthy of note.
First and foremost, the caliber of the Jackets’ play has taken a serious step in a positive direction of late. As has been well documented here and elsewhere, this has been a season of streaks in Columbus, with a 14-6 leap out of the gates, followed by a 6 – 14 – 3 swoon, and now sporting a 6 – 3 – 2 record over the past 11 contests. Columbus is coming off of a tough loss to the San Jose Sharks on Wednesday, in which they squandered a 2 – 0 first period advantage to ultimately lose 3 – 2. It was the type of loss that drives Columbus fans insane, in the sense that the Blue Jackets did not play badly. They poured 43 shots at Niemi, scored two power play goals, and only some other-worldly saves by Niemi prevented another power play tally during a frenzied third period extra man clinic, where Columbus eight shots on goal during the 2 minute advantage. While it’s true that their legs lost some fiber in the second period, and the 5-on-5 game deteriorated as the contest wore on, the fact is that Columbus gave the hottest team in hockey, playing at its best, everything it could handle. There are no moral victories for a team desperately trying to maintain relevance in the playoff hunt, but the signs are nonetheless encouraging.
Enter the Colorado Avalanche, who have drubbed the Blue Jackets by matching 5 – 1 scores in the two contests this year. However, both clubs are different beasts since the last meeting on November 12. The Blue Jackets have gone through their hellish slump, jettisoned Mike Commodore, annexed Matt Calvert, Grant Clitsome and John Moore, and have a resurgent Steve Mason between the pipes. Colorado, on the other hand, enters tonight owning a five game losing streak of their own, also falling on the short end of the score in seven of the last eight contests, including back-to-back 3 – 0 blankings by Phoenix and Anaheim. The Avalanche have managed only 15 goals over those last eight contests, while surrendering 32 — gaudy statistics in both directions.
So, how do you emerge from an avalanche of losses at an inopportune time of the year? If you’re Colorado, you go old
school . . . and bring back Peter Forsberg. Foppa has inked a deal, and the 37 year old forward could make his Colorado debut tonight. He has been ironing out some immigration issues, but is supposedly healthy. While it would be understandable to bring Foppa onto the ice for an emotional boost and to shortcut the losing skid, I’m not sure how much of a lift they will receive on the road, and they may choose a more opportune moment to unveil the 2011 version of Peter Forsberg. On the other hand, a recent spate of injuries may force their hand. While unquestionably talented, there are some rather massive question marks as to how effective Foppa will be on the ice at age 37, with a long, tortured history of injuries. Folks in Columbus could get a sneak preview tonight. [UPDATE: TSN now reports that Forsberg WILL play against Columbus.]
Of course, the other perpetual subplot involved any time Colorado enters the building is the potential return of disgraced former Captain Adam Foote. Reviled by the fan base for having feigned interest in remaining with the club when he had actually threatened to be a negative influence in the room if not traded back to Colorado, and had already chartered a flight to meet the club, fans look forward to expressing their collective disdain during Colorado’s two visits each year. While Foote has previously denied the popular version of events, though not vociferously, he curiously never seems to be available to play — the injury bug always seems to find him just before the wheels touch down at Port Columbus airport. Reports out of Denver appear to indicate that this visit will be no exception — Foote will apparently miss this contest due to an undisclosed malady. Terribly unfortunate . . . .
The other thread of intrigue is not unique to Columbus, but is perhaps of greater interest to Blue Jackets’ fans than is some other quarters, is the increasing heat on the trade front. GM Scott Howson is under the microscope, with some very vocal segments of the fan base looking for changes at the blue line or for a top line center (whatever that means). After what was viewed as a lackluster off-season, and the collapse of December and early January, there is considerable interest in making some upgrades to fuel a playoff drive. [I examine the Jackets’ needs and real personnel issues in Old, New & Missing Pieces — A Puzzle in Columbus, which appears here on THW later today.]
The Avalanche are starting Peter Budaj in goal tonight, hoping that he can continue his success against the Blue Jackets, as he manned the pipes in each of the prior victories this season. However, the tandem of Peters will face a less tentative and more determined Columbus squad tonight. The Blue Jackets have begun to show signs of cohesion and the ability to incorporate coach Scott Arniel’s system, even when the pressure is on. While defensive lapses still exist, they are less frequent and dramatic. Mercurial Kristian Huselius has contributed over the past few games, and Nash, Brassard, Umberger and Vermette all look dangerous on virtually every shift. Steve Mason has played with the confidence and agility fans recall from his Calder Trophy year of 2008-2009, and that could not come at a better time for a team hoping to be part of the playoff discussion.
The elevations of young Grant Clitsome and Matt Calvert to the NHL club have proven to be sage moves. While possessing plenty of rough edges that need to be smoothed, Calvert nonetheless has shown that talent, energy and grit can co-exist in the same player, and has ignited some energy in the offensive end. Meanwhile, Clitsome has almost single-handedly transformed the blue line corps, bringing a strong shot from the point on the power play, mobility and strength to the back end, and energy in all three zones. He has piled up 3 goals, 6 assists in just 12 games, and boasts a +4 rating. His success undoubtedly played a part in John Moore’s recent call-up, and has provided Howson with some flexibility and options for moves with his defensive corps.
Despite general consternation and the wringing of hands, the Blue Jackets are mirroring the pace they were on in their playoff year of 2008-2009. They are ramping up at the right time, and if the trend continues and injuries are avoided, it could be a very interesting final 28 games for the Columbus hockey community. If Howson can pull off a deal or two, the post-season could become a reality. It will take consistency, effort and a bit of luck, but it is there to be had.
Finally, tonight the Blue Jackets are hosting “Hockey for Huggies” night, encouraging fans to bring packages of diapers
to the arena, in support of families who struggle to make ends meet . . . so to speak. The Blue Jackets are doing this in conjunction with the Mid-Ohio Food Bank, and it is a very worthy cause. Do you think I could get a package delivered to Adam Foote in the Av’s locker room?
Blue Jackets & Avs, Forsberg & Foote, Nash & Mason, Playoffs, Trades, trash talk. It’s February in the NHL folks — a great time to be a hockey fan.