With the Winter Olympics finished, the Columbus Blue Jackets are set to return to the ice Thursday in New Jersey to begin the stretch run toward the team’s second playoff appearance in franchise history.
In the case of this Blue Jackets team, the hope is that history will not repeat itself.
After coming up one point shy in making the playoffs last season, the Jackets currently sit one point away from the Eastern Conference’s final playoff spot. While only separated by four points from the current sixth seed — the New York Rangers — the Jackets have 24 games left to prove why they are the team fans believed they were before the season began and reach the postseason again after a three year hiatus.
Following a three-week break from play because of the Olympics, five Jackets — Sergei Bobrovsky, Artem Anisimov, Nikita Nikitin, Fedor Tyutin and Marian Gaborik — will finally reunite with the team for this final stretch, but not all return healthy. Worrying about players returning healthy is always a concern for a franchise and its fans and the Blue Jackets will be without the play of Tyutin. Tyutin, competing for the Russian national team, injured his ankle and is expected to be out two or three weeks. He only has four goals and 20 assists, but these stats fail to show the effect Tyutin has on the ice for the CBJ. Tyutin has been one of the team’s defensive anchors over the past few seasons, and beginning play without him could provide a sting the Jackets cannot afford at this time in their season.
The Blue Jackets were moved from the Western Conference to the Eastern Conference this season and continued their goal of competing in the NHL playoffs. Before the season began, some pundits were anointing this team as the one to watch out for this season and expecting big results from a team without much playoff experience. Much like last season, the Jackets kicked off this year’s campaign by coming out of the gates at a much slower pace than others. Fans and media outlets were beginning to question what the team’s actual potential was and if it was pressured by too many expectations.
Since their initial slow start to the season, the Jackets have since rebounded nicely and turned into one of the most competitive teams in the Eastern Conference. Recent stretches, including an eight-game winning streak, have positioned them for a possible shot at the playoffs, but in order to accomplish said goal, they will need to find a way to eliminate their propensity of not showing up for short stints of games and maintain focus on their ultimate goal. The Jackets have an even 12 remaining games at home and 12 on the road, and with eight teams competing for the East’s final three playoff spots, everything is up for grabs coming down to the end.
With the trade deadline rapidly approaching, the Jackets finally see themselves as buyers instead of sellers. Improving the back end of their defensive lines and finding another wing who has a natural ability to score the puck are two areas the Jackets need to focus on most. All indications point toward the team making some kind of move before the deadline expires. Fans in Columbus have committed themselves to a team that has only made the playoffs once, and are desperately clinging to the idea of making it back once again. For the organization and its fan base, this critical run could have a significant impact on the present and future of the Blue Jackets. These moments are what separate the good teams from the great ones, and now it is time to sit back and see what the Jackets can do with this opportunity.