Blue Jackets Face Difficult Schedule In Week Ahead

By Jacob Nitzberg on February 19, 2022 at 3:40 pm
Feb 17, 2022; Chicago, Illinois, USA; The Columbus Blue Jackets celebrate their victory over the Chicago Blackhawks following the third period at the United Center.
Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports
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The Blue Jackets went 4-1-0 on their five-game road trip, and are 6-2-0 in their last eight games.

Their reward?

They get to start a two-game homestand against the Sabres on Sunday evening, and they'll need to get two points. Why?

Because they'll then take on the Maple Leafs at home on Tuesday, then visit the Panthers and Hurricanes in a back-to-back on Thursday and Friday. To recap: they will be taking on the second, third, and fifth-best teams in the NHL (based on points percentage) within a four-day span. That's a brutal schedule by any stretch of the imagination, and the fact that they'll be doing it on a back-to-back in Florida and Carolina doesn't make it any easier. 

The Blue Jackets currently sit nine points out of the Eastern Conference's second wild-card spot with 34 games remaining. We only have to look back a couple of years to find a team who was in a similar position finding their way down the stretch: the 2018-19 St. Louis Blues, who were in second-to-last place in the Central Division with 34 games remaining. They promptly ripped off a 24-6-4 stretch, finishing second in the Central Division. They would go on to win the Stanley Cup, defeating the Boston Bruins in seven games.

Yes, there are some differences between the Blue Jackets and that year's Blues squad. More specifically, the Blue Jackets do not have a Ryan O'Reilly or a Vladimir Tarasenko. That Blues team also rode the hot hand in net, Jordan Binnington. Elvis Merzlikins is capable of such stretches, but he'll need the defensive play in front of him to improve significantly.

With that in mind, this week will be make-or-break for the Blue Jackets. Anything more than four points would be impressive; anything more than six would be outstanding, but anything less than four points could see them staring up a long way in the standings.

Sunday will be the third time that the Blue Jackets and Sabres meet this year, and the Blue Jackets have taken both matchups, winning 7-4 on November 22nd and 4-3 in overtime on February 10th. Both games were played in Buffalo, so it's now the Blue Jackets' turn for some home-ice advantage.

After that, the high-flying Toronto Maple Leafs are coming to town. Auston Matthews is on a nine-game point streak, tallying 8-10-18. The Maple Leafs are 7-2-0 in their last nine games as a result. Of course, Matthews isn't the only Maple Leaf that the Blue Jackets will have to worry about. Winger Mitch Marner has 11 goals and 24 points in his last 12 games. The two teams met in Toronto on December 7th, a 5-4 Maple Leafs victory.

Then the Blue Jackets will head down to sunny (or rainy, who knows) Florida to take on the Panthers. There's domination, and then there's what the Panthers have done to the Blue Jackets in recent times. In their last eight matchups, the Blue Jackets are 0-7-1 against the Panthers, including thrashings of 9-2 and 8-4 this season. In those most recent eight games, the Panthers have outscored the Blue Jackets 46-17 and are averaging a staggering 5.75 goals per game. 

After the Florida matchup, the Blue Jackets will have about 21 hours to recover before the puck drops in Raleigh, North Carolina. To the Blue Jackets' credit, they trounced the Hurricanes in Raleigh on January 13th, 6-0. Of course, that was revenge for New Year's Day, when the Blue Jackets blew a 4-0 lead and fell 7-4 at Nationwide Arena. In their last six matchups, the Blue Jackets are 1-3-2 against the Hurricanes, who are 17-4-2 at home this season. It's been an up-and-down February for Carolina, who is 2-2-2 in their last six games.

When the dust settles on Saturday morning, the Blue Jackets organization will have a crystal-clear picture of where they stand for the rest of the season. It's no secret that the odds are against them. They're missing Eric Robinson, Alexandre Texier, and Jake Bean along with having one of the youngest teams in the NHL.

Funnily enough, underdogs win sometimes. While it would take a bit of luck (and a massive improvement defensively), the Blue Jackets can succeed this week. They are more than capable of beating good teams this season, boasting wins of 6-0 at Carolina, 5-4 at Colorado, 4-2 vs. Colorado, 4-1 vs. Dallas, 5-3 vs. the New York Rangers, and 5-4 at Washington. 

If the Blue Jackets are going to make a run, this week needs to be the first step. A week from now, they could be double-digit points out of a spot. Or, they could be within striking distance.

You never know.

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