Less than two months ago the Columbus Blue Jackets seemed destined for another last place finish. Following an abysmal start and without the face of the franchise for the first time in nearly a decade, all signs pointed to (another) forgettable season in Ohio’s capital.
What a difference half a season makes.
The Blue Jackets were supposed to be in contention for the first pick in the draft not a spot in the playoffs. Apparently Todd Richards and his scrappy Jackets didn’t get the memo. On the heels of a 7-0-4 run and riding one of the hottest goaltenders in the NHL, the boys in union blue find themselves in the thick of the playoff race.
In a shortened season with nearly every team still in contention turnover in the standings is fast and frequent. With only eighteen games remaining on the schedule, is it possible the Jackets could hustle their way into Lord Stanley’s tournament?
Let’s take a look at road ahead for Jackets and where they must succeed for a chance to crash the party come May.
We Fight. We “March.”
That’s the phrase emblazed on the inner collar of Jackets alternate sweater. The motto has become particularly relevant with the Jackets playing their best hockey over the last month. The streak without a regulation loss is impressive, but to make-up for a slow start Columbus must find a way to finish out March just as strong.
The logjam behind the eighth place in the Western Conference isn’t going away. Starting with Calgary at home on Friday, the Jackets have four games against teams battling for the bottom seed in the west. The next day the Jackets begin a four game road trip in Nashville against the struggling Predators. They’ll head to Vancouver, Edmonton, and Calgary before finishing out the month at home against the mighty Anaheim Ducks.
If Columbus is to be taken seriously they must take advantage of favorable match-ups. Columbus currently holds more points than four of the remaining six teams on the March schedule. Trips through the hostile Canadian West can be brutal and it will be a real test for one of the NHL’s least experienced teams. Then again, youth and relentless effort have earned Columbus plenty of wins against veteran teams lately.
If the Jackets can manage eight or more points (of a possible twelve) to round out an exceptional month of play, they’ll be in prime position to make a run at the post season in April.
Defend Nationwide Arena
Columbus has a reputation for allowing rival fans to take over their building. These days, however, Nationwide is anything but a home away from home for opposing teams. Just three of the last ten games in Columbus have been settled in regulation. The outliers being the 6-2 massacre of the Sharks, a 3-0 shutout over the Red Wings, and Tuesday’s 4-3 triumph over the Predators. To stay in the hunt Columbus must continue to make Nationwide Arena a nightmare for opponents.
Since the team’s sudden rise to relevance the Cannon faithful have been anything but hospitable to outsiders. Finally the Jackets are enjoying a little home ice advantage. Unfortunately for the Jackets, they’ll take the ice at Nationwide just six more times this season. That means they’ll play two on the road for every remaining home game.
The margin for error in a condensed NHL season is razor thin. With the exception of the Ducks, Columbus is ahead or within striking distance of all upcoming visitors to Nationwide. It is imperative the Blue Jackets continue to rack up points in Columbus.
Conquer the Wild West
Sans the final game at home against Nashville, Columbus will spend the second half of April on a grueling tour of the West. Short of a monumental collapse over the next few weeks, this brutal road series will determine the fate of the 2013 Blue Jackets.
Over the course of twelve short days the Jackets will travel more than 4,700 miles, take the ice in six different buildings, and play a back-to-back in Southern California against the surging Kings and Ducks. The trip kicks off with against the Northwest-leading Wild in St. Paul. The most winnable games on the docket come against Dallas, Colorado, and San Jose.
Continued solid play between the pipes will be critical to surviving the long trip. Columbus will need more than they can ask of the sensational Sergei Bobrovsky. Brace yourselves Jacket fans, Steve Mason will be starting critical games down the stretch. The inconsistent netminder has been a shell of his former Calder Trophy winning self ever since a mental dismantling at the hands of the Red Wings in Columbus’ one and only playoff series. And considering his horrific .897 SV% and 3.08 GAA, over a whole goal more than Bobrovsky, Jacket fans have reason to worry.
Prove Recent Success is No Fluke
The difficult schedule and rigorous travel ahead will speak volumes about this team. Coach Todd Richards has made the most of his line-up despite a lack of talent and experience. Young players are finally making good on the potential Jacket fans have been promised for so long. The condensed schedule has worked in Columbus’ favor lately thanks to speed, hustle, and superior coaching.
If Columbus can ride their current momentum, and red-hot goaltender, they have a chance to be this season’s surprise playoff team. It may be their last chance to make a mark on the Western Conference, but under Todd Richards’ guidance the Blue Jackets seem destined to be competitive for years to come.