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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.

Lightning, Islanders make East playoff races even more confusing

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 01: Ben Bishop #30 of the Tampa Bay Lightning makes the third period save as Ryan Strome #18 of the New York Islanders looks for a rebound at the Barclays Center on November 1, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Whenever you groan at what seems like a quiet trade market, take a step back and ask yourself this: “Who is really out of it?”

For a while there, it felt reasonable to dismiss the chances of teams like the Florida Panthers, New York Islanders and Tampa Bay Lightning. Now? There’s probably only a handful of teams that can really be comfortable, at this very point, with calling themselves sellers.

The Islanders took care of their business with a 3-1 win against the fading (probably selling?) Detroit Red Wings, even with Petr Mrazek making a save like this.

Meanwhile, Ben Bishop might just be putting his game together (while Nikita Kucherov‘s game remains very much together) as the Tampa Bay Lightning throttled the Edmonton Oilers 4-1. Bishop might just end up being indispensable – or at least not worth trading – as he’s on a five-game winning streak.

With those wins, the races for the last seemingly available Eastern Conference playoff spots just get that much muddier.*

Third place in the Atlantic: Maple Leafs – 67 points in 59 games, 28 wins, 27 ROW

Second wild card: Panthers – 66 points in 58 GP, 28 W, 25 ROW

Bruins – 66 points in 59 GP, 30 W, 28 ROW
Islanders – 66 points in 59 GP, 28 W, 27 ROW
Flyers – 63 points in 59 GP, 28 W, 23 ROW
Lightning – 62 points in 59 GP, 27 W, 25 ROW
Sabres – 62 points in 60 GP, 26 W, 25 ROW

Wow, that’s crazy-close. Naturally, teams like the Islanders and Flyers lack the luxury of having a third spot in reasonable reach – unless things get truly wild – but that’s quite the congested group of playoff hopefuls.

And, sure, the Bolts are among those facing longer odds, but the way things keep swinging wildly this season, who knows? Especially with a team with a track record of success and high expectations like the Lightning.

* – We’ll arbitrarily cut off the East race at the Devils, but just in case you’re wondering, they have 60 points, the Red Wings have 58 and the Hurricanes have 56. Also, the Ottawa Senators hold the second spot in the Atlantic with 70 points and the Montreal Canadiens lead the division with 72, so that group could see quite a bit of movement over the last quarter of the season.

Forsberg’s hat trick, own-goal highlights Predators’ wild OT loss to Flames

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If you want to summarize the kind of night the Nashville Predators experienced, you could do worse than to draw parallels to Filip Forsberg‘s experiences.

The highs were quite high, you see. Forsberg & Co. carved away at the Calgary Flames’ 4-1 lead as his hat trick (see above) eventually gave the Predators a fleeting 5-4 edge.

We all should have seen more drama coming … and it did. Forsberg ended up being at the wrong place at the wrong time in overtime; the Flames’ 6-5 overtime winner ended up going off of his foot. Ouch.

Mark Giordano ended up being credited with that goal. The game was just a barn-burner.

While it was an up-and-down night for both the Flames and Predators, Pekka Rinne‘s evening was pretty much uniformly dismal.

Rinne was pulled early in the second period after giving up four goals on 13 shots, making way for Juuse Saros (who actually ended up gtting tagged with the loss).

The Flames can breathe a sigh of relief after winning the game despite coughing up a big lead, improving to 64 points and strengthening their grip on the second wild card spot. That “charity point” comes in handy for Nashville, leaving the Predators with 65 points and a game in hand on the Flames.

Serious performance: Blackhawks gain on Wild thanks to Toews’ five points

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If the Chicago Blackhawks are going to make up some serious ground and overtake the Minnesota Wild for the Central Division title, they’ll need wins like these.

It’s only fitting that “Captain Serious” Jonathan Toews did the heavy lifting, generating a hat trick and two assists as the Blackhawks beat the Wild 5-3 on Tuesday.

Yes, Toews was involved in every goal. And yes, the Blackhawks won this one in regulation after beating the Wild in overtime last time around. It’s a nice swing for Chicago:

Central Division title chase

1. Wild – 84 points in 59 games (39 wins, 36 ROW)
2. Blackhawks – 79 points in 60 games (37 wins, 35 ROW)

Yeah, that’s still a substantial edge for Minnesota … but this is a significant swing.

Even beyond the name recognition that comes with Toews & Co., the Blackhawks’ push shouldn’t be surprising. They’re red-hot in February so far, going 7-1-0 despite playing seven of eight on the road (strangely losing that lone home contest).

The Wild have played reasonably well in their own right, yet this loss sends them into a bye week with some frustration … and maybe some questions about whether they can hold the Blackhawks off.

Also, tonight marked a nice milestone for Joel Quenneville:

Matthews, Leafs get last laugh in OT vs. Laine and the Jets

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Hockey fans tend to get their radars up about over-hyping things, particularly promising rookies.

Is it hasty, then, to wonder if there’s something to a rivalry between Auston Matthews (and the Maple Leafs) vs. Patrik Laine (plus the Jets)? If nothing else, the two have come up big in two very exciting games.

Back in October, Laine generated a hat trick as the Jets beat the Maple Leafs 5-4 in overtime. This time around, it was another 5-4 overtime decision … only Matthews and the Maple Leafs took this round.

This isn’t to take anything away from Laine’s performance, mind you. He scored two goals on Tuesday, becoming the rare modern rookie to muster 30 goals. He reminded hockey fans that he only needs the smallest window to make you pay with his deadly, world-class shot.

MORE on that goal and the violence that ensued here.

But Matthews wouldn’t be denied, either, and fittingly did so in a quieter fashion. (Virtually everyone seems a little quieter when Laine’s around, it seems.)

The Maple Leafs’ outstanding rookie managed three assists in this game, giving him 52 points in 59 games. He also has six points in a three-game run and eight in his past five.

Laine? He now has 54 points in 55 games, extending is own point streak to five games (seven goals, three assists).

In other words, it’s really close … just like the games when these two budding stars (and their young, promising teammates) meet.

You might even be tempted to believe the hype.