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Blue Jackets show improvement against repeat opponents

Practice makes perfect

Buffalo Sabres v Columbus Blue Jackets Photo by Ben Jackson/NHLI via Getty Images

On Sunday, the Columbus Blue Jackets completed a three game season series sweep of the Buffalo Sabres. This was their fourth sweep of the season so far.

(Colorado has gotten so much better since we played them in November, but I’m never going to stop being amused by this)

The Jackets have won seven of their last nine games, including a 4-1 record on a five game road trip. This is their most successful stretch of the season, just barely eclipsing their 7-3-0 start to the season (which had six home games).

Playoffs are still likely out of the question: they’re nine points out of the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference, and MoneyPuck gives them just 1.7% odds to make the postseason. They’re just barely over a .500 points percentage and the underlying stats are average at best. But, are they getting better?

I had a hunch that the Jackets were playing better in games against repeat opponents. If true, this would be evidence that they were able to learn from their mistakes and build upon their experiences.

When playing an opponent for the first time this season, the Blue Jackets are 12-15-1, for a .446 points percentage, or a 73.2 point pace over a full 82 game season. When facing a team for the second time, the record improves to 8-8-0, for an 82 point pace. (The record against those same opponents the first time around was also 8-8-0). The third time, however? The Jackets are a perfect 5-0-0 in those games so far. Lest you think they’re feasting on bottom-dwellers like the Sabres and Devils, that group also includes playoff locks in the Rangers, Hurricanes, and Capitals.

Using the Hockey Reference game log, I took at look at how some basic stats changed from game to game within a series. (Obviously there are factors like location, rest, and injuries which influence the result. That deeper research may be an off-season project).

First, let’s look at the change from the first game to the second game (16 game sample):

Goals for: +7, +0.44 per game
Goals against: +1, +0.06 per game
Shots for: +58, +3.63 per game
Shots against: -28, -1.75 per game
EV CF%: -1.10, -0.07 per game
EV FF%: +8.10, +0.51 per game

The biggest change was in shots for, with the Jackets earning over a shot per period in the rematch. The games against Arizona, Detroit, and Chicago saw a double digit increase in shots for. On the negative side, goals allowed actually went up, even as shots against went down. This may simply be a reflection of how the goaltending results have severely regressed over the season.

In the third game, we see much bigger leaps from the second game:

Goals for: +14, +2.80 per game
Goals against: -8, -1.60 per game
Shots for: +15, +3.00 per game
Shots against: -11, -2.20 per game
EV CF%: +13.00, +2.60 per game
EV FF%: +17.70, +3.54 per game

Ah, that’s more like it. Better shooting performance (or luck), better shot suppression and goaltending, and better possession numbers.

The goaltending comes with a caveat, as most of that drop comes from a seven goal improvement against Carolina, from a 4-7 loss to a 6-0 shutout victory. It has been a lot more extremely hot or cold than we are used to. This tweet sums it up nicely:

The Jackets have already scored at least seven goals four times this season. In the last truly good offensive season, 2018-19, they scored seven goals five times (never eight, so we’ve got that going for us this year). On the goaltending side, that team allowed nine goals once and eight goals once. This season? Nine goals once, eight goals once, and seven goals twice. That’s an obvious weak spot, and one which could be resolved by Elvis Merzlikins returning to form once healthy.

This week, the Blue Jackets will face a series of difficult tests against Toronto, Florida, Carolina, and Pittsburgh. In their first meetings against them, they lost by multiple goals. Can they keep their hot streak going? Can they get better results in these rematches?

This is a rebuilding year, and a development year, so wins and losses aren’t as important to me (though, to be clear, winning is still a lot of fun to watch). We need to see individual players improve, and see the team play better together as a unit. This means seeing more cohesive and consistent defensive effort. This means getting offensive contributions from every line. This means the star players (like Patrik Laine) playing to their potential. This means skilled youngsters like Yegor Chinakhov gain experience and confidence. As we start to see these things more consistently, the wins will come.