For all the focus on the Columbus Blue Jackets’ eminent trade deadline day decisions, one thing is for sure: the road to the playoffs isn’t going to be an easy one.
The Blue Jackets’ trade deadline plans are anyone’s guess right now, with star players Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky being named in new rumors every day. Columbus can change its roster, but they can’t change what’s on the schedule beyond the deadline: an absolute gauntlet against some of the league’s best.
In the 18 games between the trade deadline and the end of April, Columbus – currently in the eighth playoff seed in the Eastern Conference – will play 11 games against teams that currently have a better record than they do. Another one of those games comes against the surging Carolina Hurricanes, who are breathing down the Blue Jackets’ necks for that final Wild Card spot at the moment.
That stretch also includes three games against the Blue Jackets’ fiercest rival, the Pittsburgh Penguins, who currently hold the third seed in the Metropolitan Division.
Even their non-divisional games are brutal, with the second leg of a back-to-back falling against elite teams twice in this stretch (against Winnipeg and Boston, respectively). The travel schedule is pretty brutal, too, with the yearly three-game Western Canada swing falling into this stretch.
Let’s take a look at the rest of the schedule from here on out – spoiler alert: it’s brutal – including where each team is ranked within their respective conferences. Current playoff teams are in bold.
|2/22||at Ottawa||16th in East|
|2/23||vs San Jose||2nd in West|
|2/26||vs Pittsburgh||6th in East|
|2/28||vs Philadelphia||11th in East|
|3/2||vs Edmonton||14th in West|
|3/3||vs Winnipeg||3rd in West|
|3/5||at New Jersey||14th in East|
|3/7||at Pittsburgh||6th in East|
|3/9||vs Pittsburgh||6th in East|
|3/11||at NY Islanders||3rd in East|
|3/12||vs Boston||2nd in East|
|3/15||vs Carolina||9th in East|
|3/16||at Boston||2nd in East|
|3/19||at Calgary||1st in West|
|3/21||at Edmonton||14th in West|
|3/24||at Vancouver||12th in West|
|3/26||vs NY Islanders||3rd in East|
|3/28||vs Montreal||7th in East|
|3/30||at Nashville||4th in West|
|3/31||at Buffalo||10th in East|
|4/2||vs Boston||2nd in East|
|4/5||at NY Rangers||13th in East|
|4/6||at Ottawa||16th in East|
What’s the most brutal stretch on that list? There’s a strong case to be made for March 9-12. Three games in four days, all against one of the league’s best teams, with the middle one coming on the road.
Those three games are right in the middle of a stretch where six of seven games come against teams currently ahead of Columbus in the standings – and where the only exception is against the team they're fighting with for the final playoff position.
Even the supposedly 'easy' games – which there truly are none of in this league – tend to fall on road trips. Just nine of the remaining 23 games come against teams that could be considered out of the playoff race. Seven of those nine games (!) come on the road – with two coming on the Western Canada swing and two more of those coming on back-to-back nights to close out the season.
Given that Columbus is just one point up on the Carolina Hurricanes for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, it’s clear that every single point matters as the season winds down. With that schedule, though, getting those points will be more challenging than ever.
On the bright side, if they're up to the task, they could catapult themselves up the Eastern Conference standings.
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