And Down The Stretch They Come . . .
WIth just 18 games left in the regular season, the Blue Jackets are in the thick of a playoff race that is excruciatingly tight. Enjoy the ride.
The numbers are mind-boggling, seemingly changing by the hour. Five teams (Blue Jackets, Rangers, Flyers, Devils, Capitals) are separated by a total of five points, in search of two automatic playoff bids from the Metropolitan Division. Those same five, plus Tampa Bay, Montreal, Ottawa, Detroit and Toronto, are in the running for the two wild card slots in the East. None of these clubs holds more than one or two games in hand on any of the others. So, at the end of the day, there are ten clubs realistically vying for six playoff slots.
You can drive yourself crazy trying to figure out who has an edge or a handicap during the sprint to the finish. Some clubs have schedules theoretically more challenging than others, but that can be illusory. Clubs with functional locks on top playoff spots (i.e. Pittsburgh and Boston) can rest regulars, and may not share the motivation of those clubs in the heat of the battle. Conversely, the "easier" clubs -- those out of the playoff race -- have nothing to lose and lots of young players trying to impress. So, predicting results is, at best, a precarious business.
As this goes to press, the Blue Jackets hold the second wild card slot in the East, due to Detroit's loss to the Rangers on Sunday. While tied in points (71) and games played, Columbus holds a big lead in the ROW tiebreaker -- 29 to 25. Enjoy it, but don't relax -- it will change momentarily. No doubt, however, that being above the line is better than being below the line at this point in the season.
With all of the focus on the destination -- a playoff berth -- it's easy to lose sight of the journey, but I think it's important the Blue Jackets' fans resist that temptation. When the final horn blows in Miami on April 12, we don't know where the club will stand. In a race this tight, control over one's own fate is tenuous, at best. The club is unlikely to win -- or lose -- all 18 of its remaining contests, and no other club is likely to accomplish other of those feats. So, the next month promises to be an ongoing ritual of agonizingly tight games, accompanied by intense scoreboard watching. If you squeezed the stuffing out of the arms of your sofa during Saturday's 1 - 0 win in Nashville, as I did, then you're likely to have some really strong hands by the end of the season, as the games promise to be similarly tight down the stretch.
In the midst of all of this turmoil, let's appreciate the fact that the Blue Jackets are playing meaningful hockey -- probably all the way to the finish line. It's a validation of the late run made last year -- in the labor strife shortened season. There have been plenty of skeptics, discounting last year's effort to the vagaries of the schedule and a Vezina performance by Sergei Bobrovsky. This year is a different story -- Bob is playing well, but is not other-worldly. It's a full, 82 game grind, and Columbus has shown the ability to play with anybody. Sure, there have been some stinkers, but there have been some routs in the other direction, and that delicious winning streak that launched the club into the heart of the race.
If the Blue Jackets were just playing meaningful hockey, it would be good, and validation of John Davidson's "brick by brick" approach. But Columbus is doing more -- playing some good, entertaining hockey. The club ranks ninth in the NHL -- and third in the East -- in goals per game at 2.84. That has never happened before, even with that guy named Nash prowling the ice at Nationwide. It's entertaining hockey, and a brand of the game that ensures that the Blue Jackets are seldom out of any game. The seats are filling at Nationwide, the rest of the league is taking notice, and we no longer see the backup goaltenders with the frequency of the past. That's called respect -- for the guys on the ice and the folks in suits.
So, sure -- focus on the playoff run, exult over every win, anguish over each loss That's what being a fan is all about. But along the way, be sure to appreciate what you're experiencing, and remember the quality of the product we were watching just a couple of years ago. Sure, there are holes to fill and problems to solve, but the quality of the clubs problems has vastly improved. Enjoy it.