Though the pre-season won't start until the 20th, we thought we'd look ahead to the coming season and try to identify a few key games, in and out of the Central Division, that we may be able to use as benchmarks for how the season is going.
You may remember that I spent some time during the Spring looking at divisional and repeat opponents, and the value in beating those teams if you want to make the playoffs, so don't be surprised if you see some names show up more than once...
1) Opening Night vs. NSH, 10/7/11
It all starts here. Not only is this a test of the revamped roster for the first time under full NHL pressures, it's a chance to put a win in the books against a divisional opponent who have constantly been a thorn in the club's side. We talked about how the team should average at least 7 points in the standings from each divisional opponent if they want to make the playoffs. Here's a chance to grab two from Nashville on day one.
2) 10/22/11 @ OTT.
Game #8 means that we'll have put 10% of the season behind us, including a couple of short road trips before the Jackets fly into Canada's capital for their first cross-conference game. Games against the East are an area the Jackets traditionally do very, very well in, and a win in Ottawa gets things off on the right foot.
3) 11/5/11 @ PHI
Jeff Carter returns to Philadelphia for the first and only time this season. Given how everything went down? I predict a riot (or at least a Jeff Carter hat trick, but that's not nearly as catchy a song title.) It's the only meeting of the two teams, and normally I wouldn't call it that big of a matchup, all things considered, but never discount the value of wanting to stand up for a teammate and show up his old club on the locker room.
4) 11/19/11 @ NSH
Not only is this the game that the Jacket Backers have been arranging their big bus trip for (meaning a nice contingent of visiting fans to help out in "enemy territory", it's the first game at Nashville this season - a place where the Jackets' momentum frequently goes to die. While I won't dare hope for a winning record on the road against the Predators, simply breaking even would boost Columbus' chances of a postseason appearance, and would be an immeasurable psychological balm for the fans.
5) 11/27/11 vs. STL
Game 23 - not quite 30% into the season, and a rare Sunday evening tilt at that. This is the first appearance of the St. Louis Blues in Columbus - in fact, it's the first matchup of the two in the 2011-2012 season. In their first meeting last season, the Jackets' put a defiant stamp on the then division leaders with their 8-1 drubbing and the "soccer incident." A similarly strong declaration of "THIS IS OUR BUILDING" would be a good thing, particularly since the next game on the schedule is...
6) 11/29 @ VAN
The team's first "West Coast" swing starts in BC vs. the defending Western Conference champs, a team who manhandled them last season at every meeting. With the rest of the Northwest division looking (relatively) weak once again this year, the Jackets could manage with simply breaking even vs. the Canucks if they can put up a better effort against Edmonton, Calgary, Minnesota, and Colorado. That said, it's still a good benchmark to see where the team is at.
7) 12/8 vs NSH
This game isn't just another divisional home game - it's the start of one of the team's longest homestands - 5 games between tonight and December 17th. Another win vs. Nashville puts the Jackets in striking distance of the 7 point mark and sets the tone for what could be a make or break stand.
8) 12/31/11 vs WSH
The final game of 2011, New Years' Eve has been a kind night to the Jackets in years past, with some dramatic victories, hat tricks, and shutouts. This year, it's not just a chance to ring out the old year with a win, it's the last home game before a California trip and starting the sprint towards the trade deadline.
9) 1/8/12 @ ANA
The final game of the California roadtrip in California (they'll stop in Chicago before finally making it home), this is notable not only for being a West Coast game that actually starts at a decent hour, but for being game #41. This is where, barring changes at the deadline, we know what we have. The pieces should be fitting together, the rough edges smoothed down, the whole machine well oiled by routine and working together. If things go to plan, this should be a team in playoff contention at this point.
If not, expect some very uncomfortable discussions around Nationwide Arena - and potentially some very unpopular decisions.
10) 1/21/12 @ DET
The Jackets will spend the bulk of January on the road, between their 4 game California / Chicago trip and the road swing that starts in Detroit and will take them as far south as Florida before going back into California again, ending on February 3rd against the Ducks. Winning in the Joe hasn't been easy, but the Jackets have been getting better at it over the last few seasons. A win here puts things on the right foot before heading off into the wild blue yonder.
11) 1/24/12 @ TBL
Part of the mega-trip to end January, this is the final game for the Jackets before they get a brief respite with the all star break. It'll be a chance for everyone to pour out a little bit more effort in hopes of racking up one last win before 90% of the team takes a vacation, and a few lucky personnel get to head up to Ottawa in the middle of January for the ASG.
12) 2/7/12 vs. MIN
Based on the information we know about Kristian Huselius' pectoral muscle injury, average rehab times, and the need to put himself back into game shape, this is my best guess for his return to the lineup, barring a setback. It's also their first game in Nationwide in February, marking the end of two and a half weeks on the road. If the team is in good position, it's one more weapon in a solid arsenal, and even if the team is lagging a bit, I would expect his first game back to be a big emotional lift for the club.
12) 2/24/12 vs COL
Game #60. At 3/4 of the way through the season the trade deadline is just a few days away, and it's time to make a decision. If the Blue Jackets aren't at or within a few points of 8th place, expect a lot of guys to be figuring out change of address forms. On the other hand, if the Jackets are solidly within the playoff pack, expect a lot of energy out of the team as they sprint for that milestone, and the debate over adding or subtracting anyone from the roster. This goes double if Colorado is similarly in the playoff hunt - this one could get nasty really quick.
13) 2/26/12 @ PIT
The only matchup between the two clubs, both the teams and the fans have been working on building a nice little rivalry here. There could be several potential storylines for this game depending on the standings, the health of each sides relative star players, and the fact that this game will be (barring any trades or injuries) the first meeting of Fedor Tyutin and Matt Cooke since his suspension.
14) 3/1/12 @ COL
If I'm doing my math right, this will be the first game following the trade deadline. One way or another, expect a team that looks different, even if it's simply a heightened level of confidence should Scott Howson be pleased with them and make the decision to stand pat.
15) 3/10 @ STL / 3/11 v. STL
Though the Jackets have several sets of back to back games this season, this is the only one that happens to be against the same opponent both nights - and the game on the 11th will be the final time the Blues appear at Nationwide in the regular season. Needless to say, taking one or both of these games is not only a boost towards winning the divisional matchup, but continuing a push towards the playoffs.
16) 4/7/12 v. NYI (Regular Season Finale)
I'd like to say that the Jackets will have certainly clinched a playoff spot by this point, and the season finale could simply be a matter of seeding. But we simply won't know how key this game is until we get there. What I can say, though, is should the Jackets fail to qualify once again, we could be looking across the ice at team that, with major uncertainties over their arena and an increasing lack of public support, might be a sign of things to come if the Blue Jackets don't get their act together...