Blue Jackets Face Tough Test in Upcoming Schedule

(Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)
(Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images) /

If you’re a glass-half-full kind of Columbus Blue Jackets fan, you’ve enjoyed the run that the team has been on as of late. They’ve gone 7-3-0 in their last 10, have scored seven goals in each of their last two contests and their compete level has been more or less where it needs to be.

That stands in stark contrast to where things were in parts of December and January when losses were coming in bunches and the Blue Jackets couldn’t quite seem to figure out how to keep the puck out of their own net.

Regardless of whether or not you wish the team would drop more games to secure a better draft pick—something general manager Jarmo Kekalainen is steadfastly against, mind you—this has been a fun team to watch during the last 10 games. Winning is fun. Scoring seven times at home is a literal blast from a cannon.

However, it’s worth keeping in mind that the teams the Blue Jackets have been beating lately are generally bottom feeders. Those are the kinds of squads you want to see a reloading organization take points off of, but the gap between the Buffalo Sabres and Carolina Hurricanes is significant.

Upcoming Games Will Test Where Blue Jackets Truly Are

Columbus won’t be pushing for a playoff spot, barring a miracle, but we are still learning things about this team down the stretch. Take the emergence of Trey Fix-Wolansky as a rock-solid call-up option, for instance.  And, moreover, this group of players is still learning things about themselves.

We have a pretty good idea of what the Blue Jackets look like against lowly squads like the Sabres and Montreal Canadiens, but eventually, they’ll need more wins like the ones they picked up recently against the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals.

Over the next four games, they’ll have the opportunity to do just that.

Between now and Feb. 27, the Blue Jackets will square off against four playoff locks and two of the four division leaders in terms of points. And these contests will be a much better measuring stick for this team as they figure out the best way to approach the trade deadline on March 21.

Maple Leafs, Panthers, Hurricanes and Penguins Up Next

Talk about a gauntlet.

All four of Columbus’ next opponents are in the NHL’s top-10 in terms of average goals scored per game. The Florida Panthers have the league’s most effective offense and might be the toughest test during this stretch for the Blue Jackets.

To their credit, their recent offensive exploits have propelled Columbus to the No. 11 spot in average goals scored per game, but they simply give up way, way too much when it comes to shots going the other way.

No team in the league surrenders as much in the defensive zone, as the Blue Jackets typically give up more than 35 shots against. That’s not going to cut it against these four teams, and if they don’t tighten up a bit defensively, they could easily end up dropping these contests, deflating whatever momentum they have had the moment.

Let’s Set Some Reasonable Goals for the Blue Jackets

Odds are against the Jackets winning all four of these games. It’s certainly possible, it just seems unlikely given how strong this group of teams is. The Panthers and Hurricanes are legit Stanley Cup contenders, the Maple Leafs are capable of shooting out the lights when they get rolling and the Penguins are still a veteran-laden and talented roster.

That doesn’t mean they couldn’t build off of some respectable outings, however. Head coach Brad Larsen needs to make sure that the Blue Jackets continue to play with the intensity that they have been since the All-Star break.

There’s a newfound tenacity to their collective game, and while they aren’t steamrolling the opposition physically, they’ve been much harder to play against too. Keeping that going heading into a stretch of five home games—the first of which comes against the Penguins on Feb. 27—is paramount.

Even if the Blue Jackets do lose a few of these contests, keeping them respectable is a reasonable goal. They gave up eight goals to the Panthers the last time they played, for example. Trying to keep that number down would be possible with some tighter defensive play; something we should be hoping to see moving forward, as giving up this many shots per night won’t lead to many wins against the top teams in the NHL.

There’s no denying that the last 10 games have been a lot of fun to witness, but we’ll know where the Blue Jackets truly stand by the end of February. Standing up tall against the likes of Florida and Carolina would really be building-block moments for this young, evolving club.