With just under two weeks remaining in 2013, the Jackets find themselves seventh in the awful Metropolitan Division, yet they are only three points back of the last guaranteed divisional playoff slot. Due to how terrible the Metro has been in comparison to the other divisions, the Jackets can almost forget about a wildcard slot and should be focused on the third and final divisional playoff spot.
The Jackets started off the season slowly, like a team trying to figure out a new coach's system. They were a mess in the defensive zone, and looked disjointed more often than not. Interestingly, when the likes of Marian Gaborik, James Wisniewski, Brandon Dubinsky and Sergei Bobrovksy went down with injuries, that's when the team started to gel. The much-ballyhooed identity that every team tries to forge began to shine through. The team started to look a lot like it did while on its epic run to end last season, and this is all happening without the teams' top-paid players.I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that the turnaround also coincided with the return of Matt Calvert, who also missed significant time. He's far from the team's top-paid player, but his energy and nose for the net were sorely missed.
Dubinsky has since come back, and he's brought everything we've come to expect- grit, scoring, and a quick temper. Over the next couple of weeks the team will get top sniper Gaborik back, along with powerplay specialist and defense-scoring leader Wisniewski. With some luck, Bobrovsky should be back in a few weeks as well.
The question becomes, when the stars return will the Jackets continue to play within their system, showing the same effort and energy level, which has led to some success of late? Or will the team revert back to their early-season sloppiness, which looked a hell of a lot like a team waiting for the big guns to carry the load?
I'm thinking we'll see the former. It took some time, but the message is obviously being received.
Gaborik and Wisniewski will help boost the powerplay, which is already pretty good at 11th overall in the league. They'll also help the team score more five-on-five, which would be welcome as the Jackets are currently 17th in the league in goals per game.
A healthy Bobrovsky in a tighter system with fewer shots-against would be the biggest boon, as the Jackets are sitting 19th in goals-against.
Recap / Forecast:
- The team is playing tighter as a whole, showing more energy and cohesiveness. The system is in place.
- In short order, Gaborik and Wisniewski will return, which will help the offense substantially.
- Also in short order, Bobrovsky will return, and given the better defensive play in front of him, this should help the team defense.
- Have I mentioned that Ryan Johansen and Nick Foligno are in the midst of career years? I didn't? Ok, well these two guys are having terrific seasons, and in the case of Johansen, he's breaking out in a big, big way.
- Over the past few games, Cam Atkinson and Artem Anisimov- the core of the secondary scoring-have been heating up. Atkinson has been a point-per-game scorer over the last six games, while Anisimov has goals in two of his last three games, and has been far more noticeable in the offensive zone.
- The team has received, and will continue to receive, gritty efforts from the likes of Calvert, Boone Jenner, Corey Tropp, Blake Comeau and Derek MacKenzie.
- Heck, even R.J. Umberger has looked good of late, creating chances and opening up space for Johansen.
- Oh yeah, and Nathan Horton is back soon too.
What this boils down to in my mind is that when the big guns return, with the players finally playing like a team, and with the debut of Horton, the Jackets will make their move for a playoff spot. Their slow start has luckily been offset by the lack of success seen by their division mates not named the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The push has already started, albeit slowly. Over the next few weeks, if future injuries can be avoided, the push can turn into a full-on drive for the postseason, led by the team's stars, role players and commitment to the coach's game plan.
We've been starved as a fanbase for playoff hockey, let's get back there in 2014.