The Western Conference has a heated race for its final playoff berths, with five teams in the hunt for the final two spots. The unlikeliest contender of these is the Columbus Blue Jackets. The franchise has only made the postseason one time since coming into existence in 2001. That was four years ago and they lost in the first round. So it’s understandable, with the team now tied for the final playoff berth, that the locals might be excited about something more than college football for a change. Today’s NHL analysis will look at the Blue Jackets, then touch on the other four contenders.
Here’s a basic statistical profile of Columbus and how they rank in the 30-team NHL. The offense and defensive numbers are self-explanatory, with what’s in parentheses being where they rank in shots on goal (offense) and shots allowed (defense). Then we see where they rank in regular 5-on-5 play, with the final category being the power play, with the first number being their performance with the man advantage, the second being their success at killing opposing power plays.
Offense: 26th (29th)
Defense: 11th (19th)
The stats tell you this team does with defense, especially their exceptional performance killing penalties. The poor showing at preventing shots tells you that the defense is a one-man effort. That man is goalie Sergei Bobrovsky. His 93.1% save rate is the second-best in the league. The only one better is Ottawa’s Craig Anderson, featured here at TheSportsNotebook this week, and Bobrovsky and Anderson both carry teams that are essentially not very good and make them contenders.
Columbus made a good effort to do something about its offense at the trade deadline a couple weeks ago when they acquired Marian Gaborik from the New York Rangers. Since Gaborik arrived, the Blue Jackets have gone 5-2 and that includes wins in each of their last four games. Gaborik has scored three goals in that timeframe. My concern is that the big weakness on the Columbus offense is that nobody’s a really good passer. So while Gaborik certainly helps—and I give the team a lot of credit for working to improve themselves, they need better puck movement overall if the offense is going to be Bobrovsky the help he deserves.
The Blue Jackets have 47 points coming into Tuesday’s game, a total that ties them with Detroit coming into Tuesday’s games. Detroit currently holds the tiebreaker and the season ends on April 27th, a week from Saturday. Both teams are just one point behind St. Louis, and in the rearview mirror, Dallas and Phoenix can’t be counted out of the playoff picture. If we want to further muddy the waters, Minnesota is in 6th and slumping of late, possibly opening up another playoff spot. TheSportsNotebook featured the Wild two weeks ago (and undoubtedly triggered their slide). Here’s the statistical profile for other playoff contenders…
Offense: 15th (22nd)
Defense: 14th (2nd)
Comment: Ken Hitchcock got Coach of the Year last season and might deserve it again if he gets the Blues in. They lost T.J. Oshie and Jamie Langenbrunner to injuries, weakening the offense. Injuries and struggles have made the goaltending situation a train wreck. But they play great team defense, own the power play on either side and have kept themselves alive.
Offense: 20th (4th)
Defense: 10th (11th)
Comment: The disparity between the shots the offense generates and the goals they score suggest a statistical fluke that the shortened season might not give time to work out.
Offense: 10th (28th)
Defense: 24th (22nd)
Comment: Dallas’ offense is getting the good luck that’s been escaping Detroit. But goalie Kari Lehtonen has a groin injury and is questionable for a big Thursday game against Vancouver. It’s not a long-term injury, but at this point in the year and with no margin of error, any missed game could end the Stars’ season.
Offense: 18th (9th)
Defense: 17th (20th)
Comment: After a magnificent season a year ago, goalie Mike Smith has come back to earth, ranking 28th in the league in save percentage.
THE REST OF THE WESTERN CONFERENCE PLAYOFF PICTURE
Chicago has the #1 seed all but clinched, and will officially clinch with one more win. The Blackhawks are also in good shape for the best record overall, leading the Pittsburgh Penguins by six points (the equivalent of three games, for fans who don’t follow hockey regularly). Anaheim and Vancouver have their divisions in reasonably good control, at five points up, and that would settle both teams into the 2-3 spots. Anaheim is also plus-five on Vancouver, so we can realistically pencil in the top three seeds as Chicago, Anaheim and Vancouver in that order.
Los Angeles and San Jose look headed for a matchup in the 4-5 spot on the bracket, although sluggish play could slide either team further down. Right now just a point separates them for home ice in the first round. The rest of the bracket picks up with Minnesota and the teams discussed above.