As the NHL season is winding down, the playoff picture in the Eastern conference is turning out to be a mad dash to the finish line. If you’re not familiar with the new playoff format, it’s a bit different than in years past. The top 3 teams from each division gain automatic playoff spots and there are 2 wild cards in each conference. If the playoff race ended today, Boston, Montreal and Toronto would be automatic qualifiers in the Atlantic division. The Metro division would have Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and The NY Rangers with their foot in the door as it stands. The 2 wild cards are Tampa Bay and Detroit. This of course would leave the CBJ sitting at home watching the playoffs from their couch once again.
The Jackets are 32-26-5 and have a total of 69 points; a very respectable showing up to this point, but still not enough to catapult them into the playoffs. They trail Detroit by 2 points for the final wild card spot and Tampa Bay by 4 points. They have 19 games remaining to somehow sneak into the top 3 of the Metro or overcome one of the 2 wild card teams. With 10 home and 9 road games remaining, it’s very clear they will have to find a way get crucial points away from Nationwide Arena in order for this to happen.
I’ve been very optimistic up to this point in the season and have given credit for the great composure this group has shown since Day one. I still feel that composure and confidence is there, but there are many aspects of this team that concern me coming down the stretch. My first concern is the injuries at the blue line. Fedor Tyutin is out indefinitely and there is no return date set to this point. Ryan Murray is listed as being near return, but it’s my feeling he might be out longer than expected. Nikitin had his bell rung in the Chicago game and only played one shift after the 1st period. Nikitin might be back as soon as Monday night in Dallas, but it’s not looking good for him to be in the lineup Saturday night in Nashville. That constitutes the top 3 defenseman this year for the CBJ in terms of performance. Wisniewski and Johnson have shown flashes of brilliance, but haven’t displayed the consistency at times that is needed. That leaves the work load to newly acquired Nick Schultz, Cody Goloubef, Dalton Prout or David Savard. The injuries this team has at this crucial juncture in the season could be their undoing.
The trade deadline certainly didn’t have the luster for the Jackets that many were expecting. My prediction that Marian Gaborik would still be around for the remainder of the season looked foolish. In hindsight this will be a positive for the team in the long run, but the short term payoff is questionable. Gaborik really enjoyed being in Columbus and he got along great with everyone in the locker room, but he just isn’t a fit for the north-south style that this team wants to play. The Jackets have been in the top 10 in scoring in the league this year without a huge contribution from Gaborik, but can this team maintain the torrid scoring prowess they have shown up to this point? Matt Frattin was a part of the trade for Gaborik, but he wasn’t exactly electrifying in the Chicago game when he made his Columbus debut. Nick Schultz came from Edmonton to help shore up the D corps, but I still think he’s a little past his prime and his impact will be minimal.
As was the case last year, the X factor will have to be Sergei Bobrovsky. He was left for the wolves in the Chicago game because of poor rotation by the aforementioned defenseman and a great team that was on their game. The whole game was a series of mishaps covering the full 200 foot length of the rink and a lack of execution. I want to say that I feel optimistic that this group will find a way to sneak into the playoffs and generate the same type of buzz that they created the last part of the 2013 season. It will take an incredible run and near perfect performance from everyone to keep the ship steady in the race to the finish line. Either way, it should be an exciting 19 games and nerve wracking for the fans.