After a surprisingly strong start, the Blue Jackets found themselves in the midst of a mid-season slump for the second year in a row.
Unlike last season, however, they are still within five points of a playoff spot, despite being in the bottom echelon of a tight Western Conference race.
(By contrast, at this point last season the team was over 9 points out, and had played 56 games. I won't deny that there is still a need for urgency, but there is also still reason to hope.)
With that in mind, let's look at how things started, and what the team will need to do if they hope to get into the big dance...
After splitting the European Premier games against San Jose in Stockholm, the Jackets gave up a bad loss on home ice to the Chicago Blackhawks, won a pair against Minnesota and Anaheim, then let out another stinker vs. Calgary before going on a four game win streak, finishing the month with a loss to Colorado.
One of the best starts in Jackets' history continued with back to back shutouts for Mathieu Garon against the Canadiens and Thrashers. After losing a close game to the Wild, the team responded by blowing out the Blues, 8-1, then dropping the following game against the Avs before sweeping their West Coast trip vs the Ducks, Kings, and Sharks, including shutting out San Jose 3-0. The team then returned home to shut out Nashville, 2-0, and beat the Islanders in OT before dropping their first two matches with the Red Wings.
In hindsight, taking 15 of 32 possible points, while not great, was not the worst possible result. Still, as the team struggled, including blowout losses to the Penguins and Sabres, it was hard to feel a great deal of enthusiasm. However, after a mid-month slump including losses to the Canucks, Oilers, Blues, and Stars, the Jackets ended the month strong with victories over the Wild, Maple Leafs, and Senators.
In a month shortened by the all-star break, every game was crucial, but the Jackets continued to slip, including dropping all three games in another Pacific division swing, before taking three points out of a home and home series with Detroit, three points out of the "Dad's Trip" to Florida, including the dramatic overtime win vs. the Panthers, and a 5-2 beatdown of St. Louis, ending the month with Tuesday's 3-2 loss to Anaheim.
Current record: 23-21-5 (51 points)
It is a sign of how tough the West is that the Jackets technically have a winning record (.520 winning percentage), yet they are struggling to scrap for position in the conference. Meanwhile, in the East, the Buffalo Sabres have an identical record, yet they are in close striking distance of 8th place Atlanta and considered likely to make a push for the playoffs.
Regardless, there are reasons to be positive. The emergence of Grant Clitsome as an excellent power play weapon, the continued strong play of Rick Nash, and the hustle of Matt Calvert have all been bright points of late, and a power play that struggled as the league's worst for much of the season has finally started to click again.
On the other hand, both Steve Mason and Mathieu Garon have been having below average seasons, and the team's defensive corps, a subject of great concern in the offseason, has continued to struggle. Despite good contributions from Marc Methot and Fedor Tyutin, the team's lack of speed and puck moving has been exposed on several occasions, and it's fair to say that Kris Russell and Rostislav Klesla have both disappointed this season (to say nothing of the Mike Commodore situation...)
With 33 games remaining and 1-2 games in hand over most teams, what can we expect?
February (12 games)
The Jackets will kick off the post-all star season with a pair of central division matchups, hosting Chicago and then traveling to Detroit before returning home to take on the Oilers. They'll follow that up with a game against the Pittsburgh Penguins, who still may not have Crosby and Malkin back in the lineup at that point, then see a brief home stand vs the Sharks and Avs. They'll take on Dallas at home, then return to host the Kings, Blackhawks, Preds, and Coyotes before ending the month with a Sunday afternoon matchup in Nashville.
My personal prediction is for the team to go 6-4-2. I think the games vs. the Sharks, Oil, Kings, and Coyotes are winnable, and there's a good chance the team can split or go to OT on their divisional games based on this season's history. This would also put the team up against the trade deadline...if Scott Howson could deliver some help, it could be a major boost to the team's chances.
March (16 games)
The Jackets will start March in Western Canada, with a swing through Vancouver, Edmonton, and Calgary, then take on the Blues in a home and home series before hosting the Kings for the second time this season, followed by a trip down to Carolina.
The next home stand will include the Northeast division leading Bruins and the Red Wings before a trip to Minnesota to take on the Wild, and a Sunday afternoon home game vs. New Jersey that could potentially be chosen as an NBC game of the week.
The Jackets will follow that up with their last trip into the Northwest division, taking on the Avs at home, then down to Phoenix to meet up with the Coyotes, before hosting the Canucks and Panthers at Nationwide, and finally ending the month in D.C. to take on the Capitals.
My personal prediction here is 8-4-3. The Jackets damn well SHOULD be able to beat Edmonton, Calgary, Florida, and New Jersey, and I think splitting the home and home with St. Louis is reasonable. I'd love to see them pick up the victory against Boston and the Wings, but I suspect that the road trip to Colorado and Phoenix could be trouble, and an OT game against Washington seems likely, considering that nearly every game the two teams have played the last three years has gone to OT.
April (5 games)
If March is the Make or Break month, this is the last desperate gasp - the team will either be in a playoff spot, be scrabbling for a chance, or gone, and these games will be about playing spoiler.
After playing the Caps on March 31st, the team will fly back to take on the Blackhawks at home on April Fools' day, then host the Blues on the 3rd.
The team will take their final road trip to Dallas and Nashville, then end the regular season at home against the Sabres on April 9th.
My prediction here is 3-1-1. I think the games vs. the Blues, Stars, and Sabres are all winnable, I think the game in Nashville has a good chance of being an OT game, and I think asking the team to turn around and beat the Hawks after taking on the Caps AND having to travel the previous night is asking a lot.
If my predictions came true, that would give the Jackets a record of 17-5-6. That's a 40 point run, putting them at 91 points. It would require, essentially, .600 hockey, instead of .520. I'd like to hope that it MIGHT be enough, but right now it's hard to say. It's entirely possible that with the current success of teams like the Avalanche, Ducks, and Predators that the bar could be pushed up to 95 - even 100 points.
It's possible, but I will be the first to admit it's going to be difficult, and I think it almost requires a boost to the team via trade or another highly productive callup. Still, I bought the ticket, and I'm taking the ride.
After all, if being a Jackets' fan has taught me anything, it is that anything is possible.