Streaky Blue Jackets now in serious playoff bubble trouble
Off ice, it was a pretty good weekend for the Blue Jackets. On Friday, Columbus and Sergei Bobrovsky agreed on a four-year extension with a hefty $7.425 million cap hit, making the 2012–13 Vezina Trophy winner the second-highest paid goaltender in the league. It’s a deal that buys three years of free agency and keeps the franchise’s most important player in Union Blue through his prime, while sparing the organization from a cap-crushing long-term commitment. It’s a big win for both sides.
On Saturday the home crowd learned that it will have three of its own to cheer for when the All-Star Game comes to town on Jan. 25: Forwards Ryan Johansen and Nick Foligno were named to the squad along with Bobrovsky.
“I’m excited for the city of Columbus to show what kind of hockey town it is,” Foligno told Fox Sports. “I know it is because I see it first-hand. I think once the hockey world comes in and shines a light on Columbus and sees what type of place it is for hockey, they’ll be really impressed. We’re excited for the city and [to] be the guys here and representing our team. It’s a huge honor. We’re really excited about that.”
The Blue Jackets are probably less excited about the pair of eggs they laid on the ice, though. It was inevitable that Columbus would run into some tough going after a recent 12-2-1 burst put them back into contention for a playoff spot, but back-to-back 5–2 losses to the Maple Leafs and the Islanders offered stark reminders of how tough it will be for the Jackets to make a serious run at the postseason.
It wasn’t just that they lost to two teams that are ahead of them in the standings, either. It’s also how they lost. In both games, Columbus struggled with turnovers, penalties and the speed of their opponents. The Blue Jackets’ transition game was non-existent and they were outworked, and outscored, when playing five-on-five.
Were the defeats just brief lapses? Maybe. But with tough conference games coming up this week against the Rangers and the Canadiens at home, and against the Bruins in Boston, Columbus needs to make some quick adjustments before the losses mark beginning of a costly skid.
The Jackets enter the second half of the season 11 points behind eighth-place Boston in the Eastern Conference. To earn even a 50-50 shot at making the playoffs, Columbus needs to finish the regular season 26-11-5, according to sportclubstats.com. The schedule will make it very tough for the Blue Jackets to accomplish that: They have just three head-to-head matchups against the teams they are pursuing (one each against the Bruins, the Maple Leafs, and the Senators); only eight of their final 42 games are against teams that are below them in the standings; and seven of their final 10 games are against such tough foes as the Ducks (3/24), the Blackhawks (3/27), the Blues (3/28), the Islanders (4/2; 4/11), the Penguins (4/4) and the Rangers (4/6).
While a strong finish for Columbus appears to be unlikely, it’s not impossible. The team surprised everyone last season by going 26-13-3 in its final 42 games to secure its first playoff berth in five years. But that club had Artem Anisimov, and Boone Jenner, two of the six Jackets currently parked on IR. It could be late-February before either returns to the lineup, which will probably too late to have any impact on the team’s chances if it has fallen too far off the playoff pace.
That puts the pressure on youngsters like Jeremy Morin and Alexander Wennberg to step up their offensive contributions. Neither has displayed that ability at this level, but Morin—acquired last month from Chicago—has looked comfortable enough in a top-six role to think that goals should eventually come.
Kevin Connauton, acquired on waivers from the Stars, could play a key role down the stretch. The 24-year-old defenseman has 10 points in 19 games and has made an impact on the transition game and the power play. Steady Jordan Leopold could also draw in from the press box to add some puck-moving skills and veteran presence at even strength.
But ultimately Columbus’s chances will come down to the play of its All-Stars, Bobrovsky in particular. Despite the honor, the keeper hasn’t yet reached the level of play he displayed the past two seasons. His save percentage at five-on-five is a solid but unspectacular .916, down from .931 last season and .941 the year before.
He can’t do it all, but he has to do more. If he falls short, so will the Jackets.