Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Playoff Push Looms...

The Columbus Blue Jackets have completed two thirds of the Western Canadian road swing. This represents their last road trip of two games or more. After a nasty loss to Calgary in a gutsy win over Edmonton, the Jackets play the Vancouver Canucks tomorrow. The Blue Jackets play the Canucks at GM Place, and with the win over the Canucks, would pull into a fifth-place tie with them. The Canucks would hold onto the fifth spot since they have a game in hand.

So, if the Jackets win on Sunday that's not a bad road trip, with four out of a possible six points. Tuesday's game with the Kings will be the last game before the NHL Trade Deadline, which is 3 p.m. Wednesday, March 4. More on that a little later.

Here's a look at the Jackets' remaining schedule (follow along here: schedule/results). After the end of this Western Canadian swing, the Jackets have three, two-game road trips. Two of those road trips involve Central Division opponents. The third trip involves playing both Florida teams -- the Panthers and Lightning -- three days apart. Outside of those road trips, there are three, single-game road trips, all of them against Central Division opponents. Doing the math, that means seven out of the final nine road games are against the Central Division --- one against the Red Wings, two against the Blackhawks, two against the Blues, and two against the Predators.

The schedule is not much easier at home. Five of the remaining 10 home games are against the Central Division --- one each with the Red Wings, Blues, and Predators; and two with the Blackhawks. The remaining home games are Tuesday's game against the Kings, the Eastern Conference-leading Bruins, Sid Crosby and the Penguins, Northwest division leader Calgary, and the Minnesota Wild (who will probably still be fighting for a playoff spot).

Needless to say the next five weeks or so are going to be huge. While, obviously, I don't have time to look at every single schedule in the NHL, I can safely say the Blue Jackets have a big task ahead of them if they are to make the playoffs. Looking at the standings on NHL.com (through Friday night), the Jackets have only played half of their games against Central Division opponents --- they went 5-6-1 in those first 12 games. The good guys have to be huge in these next twelve. Three of the four remaining games against the Eastern Conference are against teams that are either in, or gunning for the playoffs. Guess this is why they call it a "playoff push," eh?

The point differential between fifth-place in 13th place in the West is currently nine points. A losing streak at the wrong time --- or losing more than five or six games --- could put the Jackets on the golf course in April. So far, no one is out of it --- at least not officially. The only team in the West that I would say has absolutely no hope of making the playoffs is Colorado. Their situation in goal has been shaky all season, and I'm not sure that even Joe Sakic's return will come in time. Phoenix isn't far behind, as far as elimination is concerned.

In the East, and I think positions 11 through 15 are pretty much a lock. Toronto, Ottawa, Tampa Bay, Atlanta, and the New York Islanders can go through the motions for the next five or six weeks, and get the good tee times in mid-April. Spots 4-10 in the East will be very interesting to watch, and that should mean some pretty good Games of the Week on NBC. If you're new to the sport, this is a good time to start watching hockey on TV.