With just one game until December, the Columbus Blue Jackets are hitting the quarter point of the season and find themselves where most did not expect: playoff position.
If the postseason were to begin today, the Blue Jackets would own the top wildcard spot and have a first round matchup with a team they've met in the postseason before: the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The final month of the calendar year, though, is shaping up to be very telling of what this year's version of the team is capable of. Does this team — the youngest in the NHL — have the ability to keep up their current pace of 104 points? If so, it would be the club's second-best season of all time, trailing only the 2016-17 team that finished the season with 108 points.
How did the Blue Jackets get themselves into playoff positioning? Exceptional goaltending from Elvis Merzlikins, the sixth-highest scoring offense in the league by goals per game, and rookies who are playing above their age in Yegor Chinakhov and Cole Sillinger.
But it's not all that simple. Depending on which metrics you want to use, the Blue Jackets have had somewhere between the 7th and 12th easiest schedule. Beating Colorado twice in four nights is a tremendous accomplishment, particularly considering they've went 7-1-0 since the second loss. But the Blue Jackets' first three wins came against teams with a losing record, as have three of their last four.
From here out, Columbus will be tested more. The average points per game of their remaining opponents is at 1.13; that's tied with Pittsburgh, another Metro division team, for the second toughest schedule through the end of the season.
Those tests start in December. Here's a look at the 14 December dates for the Blue Jackets. Teams in green have a winning record, with teams in dark green more than five games above .500. In red are the teams with a losing record, with the dark red more than five games below .500.
|Date||Opponent||Opponent's Record (as of 11/29)|
|Thu, Dec 2||@ Dallas||10-7-2|
|Sat, Dec 4||@ Washington||14-3-5|
|Sun, Dec 5||San Jose||11-9-1|
|Tue, Dec 7||@ Toronto||16-6-1|
|Thu, Dec 9||Anaheim||11-8-3|
|Sat, Dec 11||@ Seattle||7-13-1|
|Tue, Dec 14||@ Vancouver||6-14-2|
|Thu, Dec 16||@ Edmonton||15-5-0|
|Sat, Dec 18||@ Calgary||12-4-5|
|Mon, Dec 20||@ Buffalo||8-10-3|
|Thu, Dec 23||Buffalo||8-10-3|
|Mon, Dec 27||Toronto||16-6-1|
|Tue, Dec 28||@ Chicago||7-12-2|
|Thu, Dec 30||Nashville||11-9-1|
December starts with five straight games against winning teams. Home games against the San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks can be categorized as "should wins", but the road contests against Dallas, Washington, and Toronto are tough games.
The next five games are all on the road, and it's Columbus' longest road trip of the season. It starts with two in the pacific northwest against Seattle and Vancouver, two teams the Blue Jackets have beat at Nationwide Arena already. Winning just one of the two after that — against the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames — would be impressive.
For the second time this season, a west coast road trip ends very much not on the west coast, with a game in Buffalo against the Sabres. That's the first half of a home-and-home with the Sabres leading into Christmas, two games that Columbus should have a greater than 50% chance of winning.
In all, Columbus faces a team with a winning record (as of November 29th) in nine of the 14 games. Of the other five, all but one are on the road.
What's a successful December? Let's split the difference and give the Blue Jackets one point in November's final game Tuesday night against the Nashville Predators. If Columbus can go .500 in December — 6-6-2, let's say — that puts them at 18-13-3 (with an overtime loss Tuesday, 11/30 in Nashville).
That would put the Blue Jackets at 39 points in 34 games heading into the new calendar year. That's 94 points, which would put Columbus right on the borderline of a playoff spot based on data from past seasons.
Strap in, 5th Line. We're about to find out what the Blue Jackets are made of.