Taking a look at the Columbus Blue Jackets’ impressive month

On October 23, the Columbus Blue Jackets were 3-3 and looked like the team most of us expected: a ragtag, mediocre group of hockey players. The hit-or-miss first six games seemed to indicate that the team would remain in the mucky middle of the Western Conference, at best.

Beginning with a 3-2 win against the defending champion Blackhawks in Chicago, the Blue Jackets have quietly put together a 10-3 run that places them among the absolute best in the NHL. (Not to say that their work is done by any means, they still trail the Detroit Red Wings for the Central Division lead, so they’d be the fourth seed if the playoffs began today.)

In honor of the team’s underrated run to the upper echelon of the league at the quarter mark, I thought I would break down some of the interesting trends, numbers and other tidbits from their 10-3 jaunt.

  • Four of the Blue Jackets’ 10 wins in that span came via shutouts, with backup Mathieu Garon earning the first three and franchise netminder Steve Mason earning the last one against the Nashville Predators. Oddly enough, the shutouts came in two pairs of consecutive goose eggs.
  • The Blue Jackets outscored their opponents by a score of 39-21 in those 13 games. Ten of the goals they allowed came in two losses to the Colorado Avalanche, the only team to beat them by more than one goal in this span. (Minnesota narrowly beat them 3-2 for their only other defeat.)
  • As expected, Rick Nash has been the lightning rod for their offense. He has 10 goals and four assists for 14 points in their hot run, with nine of those goals (and one assist) coming in the last six games.
  • Both of their goalies have been fabulous for the most part. Garon is 4-1 with three shutouts in six appearances, with only five goals allowed. Mason hasn’t been that efficient, but is still on a great pace lately. He is 7-2 with one shutout and 19 goals allowed. Overall, Mason’s season total is only 8-5 so it’s obvious the young goalie is heating up along with his team right now.
  • Purists will approve of their hot streak, too. They only needed one shootout victory in their 10 wins. Half of their victories came by only a goal while the other five were more one-sided. This indicates that the Blue Jackets can win close games but they can also protect leads.
  • It’s not exactly as if Columbus is exploiting a cream puff schedule, either. They beat both of the 2010 Stanley Cup finalists, an elite team in Montreal, a tough team in St. Louis and then stopped a few hot teams cold. Perhaps the most impressive work came on their recent California road trip in which they curbed the red-hot Kings, the tough at home Ducks and the struggling but supremely talented Sharks.
  • While the Blue Jackets’ overall home record is a bit discouraging (6-5-0), they are beginning to get more comfortable in Columbus. Then again, they might want to just repeat their road rituals, because they’re 7-1 in away games in 2010-11.

It’s clearly too early to name Columbus a genuine contender, but they’ve forced their way into the discussion of elite teams in the NHL. If they keep this up, they could easily achieve their best season in franchise history and might just earn new coach Scott Arniel some serious Jack Adams award consideration.

After playing the lowly New York Islanders tomorrow, the team might face their biggest test of the season: a home-and-home pair against division leading Detroit. If they can come out on top after those two games, it might officially be time to take the Blue Jackets seriously.

Although, judging from this sturdy streak, it might already be time to do just that.

Vegas wants ‘progressive’ head coach, says McPhee

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Golden Knights GM George McPhee continued to list the characteristics he wants from a head coach this week, explaining that he’s searching for a forward-thinking bench boss.

“We want someone who is very current on the game, who is progressive on how the game should be played,” McPhee said in a recent phone call with season ticket holders, per the club website. “We’re looking for that progressive guy that can really help us through the early years and help develop our team and our players.”

So, time to connect the dots.

Back in November, Vegas owner Bill Foley laid the initial groundwork for McPhee’s coaching profile, saying he wanted to hire an experienced head coach.

“He’s not looking for a first-termer,” said Foley. “Some may or may not be available. … I would say the coach that we name is going to be a recognizable individual.”

Among the names that have already been floated, many fit the above billing: Jack Capuano, Gerard Gallant, Ken Hitchcock and Michel Therrien, among others.

Vegas has already spoken with Gallant and reportedly made contact with Capuano as well, which shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Gallant was nominated for last year’s Jack Adams as the NHL’s top coach, and McPhee is familiar with Capuano, having worked as an adviser to Isles GM Garth Snow prior to taking the Golden Knights gig.

It’s also believed former Flyers head coach Craig Berube is being considered, along with current Montreal associate Kirk Muller.

 

Pre-game reading: Tonight’s Kings-Flames game could get testy

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— Up top, the Calgary Flames don’t want Matthew Tkachuk to play any differently — even though Drew Doughty called the rookie winger a “pretty dirty player” after taking the 19-year-old’s elbow to the face earlier this month.

— Tkachuk was suspended two games for that elbow. Still, there could be fireworks tonight when the Flames and the Kings meet again in Calgary. Especially after Tkachuk replied to Doughty’s remarks with the following: “I expected more from him, honestly, than to go right to the media and start complaining after a loss.” (Calgary Sun)

— TSN’s Gary Lawless thinks Sergei Bobrovsky should win the Hart Trophy over Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby. Lawless writes: “No other player has been as important to his team and its results as Bobrovsky has to the Columbus Blue Jackets. Take Bobrovsky off the C-bus and it’s not necessarily in the ditch but it isn’t nipping at the Capitals for the league lead.” (TSN)

— Coyotes captain Shane Doan is understandably frustrated about the lower-body injury that’s kept him out of the lineup the past six games. At 40, this could be Doan’s last year in the NHL, so hopefully he’s able to return and play at least once more in front of all his fans. (Arizona Republic)

— Golden Knights owner Bill Foley doesn’t want each team’s protected list to be made public ahead of the expansion draft. That being said, Foley is also realistic: “I’d rather we know what each team has left unprotected and we make our picks and it’s a big surprise. I think there’s going to be a lot of leaks, though. I found one thing about the NHL that … everyone talks.” (Yahoo)

— An appreciation of the Detroit Red Wings playoff streak, which will finally come to an end this season. The last time the Wings missed was 1990. As noted by Nick Cotsonika: “No player in the NHL today was in the NHL then, not even Jaromir Jagr. Nine of the franchises in the NHL today weren’t in the NHL, 10 if you include the Vegas Golden Knights, who begin play next season.” (NHL.com)

Enjoy the games!

The Leafs’ remaining schedule is no cakewalk

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The Toronto Maple Leafs took care of business last night, sending the floundering Florida Panthers to a 3-2 defeat at Air Canada Centre.

Now comes the hard part for the young Leafs. They have seven games left to book their first playoff appearance since 2013, and their schedule is no cakewalk.

The Leafs’ next three games are all on the road, in Nashville Thursday, Detroit Saturday, and Buffalo Monday. After that, it’s a four-game home stand to close out the schedule, all against formidable opponents: Washington, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, and Columbus.

With a four-point playoff cushion, the Leafs can afford to lose a few games down the stretch. But head coach Mike Babcock doesn’t want his players looking too far ahead.

“I really believe with our group if we just focus on the day we’re playing and play right, we have a real good chance to win,” Babcock said. “That’s what we talk about and that’s kind of our mantra every day is just play right, play fast and we have an opportunity to be successful. We don’t get all caught up in the race. We know the standings, it’s in the paper every day, so we know that.”

The Leafs today sent goalie Garret Sparks back to the AHL. That can only mean good news for starter Frederik Andersen, who could play Thursday after missing last night’s victory with an upper-body injury.

Backup Curtis McElhinney got the nod against the Panthers, calling it the biggest game of his career. The 33-year-old then went out and made 25 saves to earn the win.

“It was great,” said McElhinney. “Getting a couple of goals in the first period there helped out a little bit and let me settle into it. It was a nice win.”

Parise ‘pretty black and blue’ after Wilson high stick, but injury not serious

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Zach Parise looked in bad shape after taking a Tom Wilson high stick to the face in Minnesota’s loss to Washington on Tuesday.

Thankfully for the Wild, Parise’s early diagnosis is a good one.

“He can see and is fine as far as that goes,” head coach Bruce Boudreau said on Wednesday, per the club’s Twitter account. “He’s sore in the upper body. I don’t think he’ll be out long.”

Boudreau went on to add that Parise was “pretty black and blue” and unlikely to play tomorrow, when Minnesota hosts Ottawa. That said, the club expects the 32-year-old to return next week.

It goes without saying that losing Parise is huge. The alternate captain has 17 goals and 37 points through 64 games this year, and is averaging 17:33 TOI per night. And for a Wild team that’s mired in a horrific slump — just three wins in its last 15 games — being down the services of such a vital contributor is costly.

Related: Stewart fought Wilson in response to the high stick