COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) – Jack Johnson calls it the most exciting time of the year.
”This is when you want to be playing meaningful games,” the Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman said.
Just maybe not so frequently.
As they went through an optional practice Monday morning, the Blue Jackets were enjoying one of their last serene moments of the week before Tuesday night’s home game against the similarly playoff-chasing Phoenix Coyotes.
The Blue Jackets close the regular season with an unprecedented four games in five nights – back-to-back games Tuesday and Wednesday and again Friday and Saturday.
”I don’t think many guys have been through this,” forward Jared Boll said.
Certainly no one currently in the NHL. No team has finished a season with so many games packed into so little time since Ottawa in 1992-93.
The Blue Jackets (40-31-7) play their final home game Tuesday, then fly out immediately to Dallas, where their March 10 contest was suspended when the Stars’ Rich Peverley collapsed on the bench. Per NHL rules, the suspended game will start completely over – only with the Blue Jackets retaining the 1-0 lead they had about 7 minutes in when the medical emergency ended play.
Columbus holds the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference with 87 points. It is just two points behind third-place Philadelphia in the Metropolitan Division and a point back of Detroit, which owns the first wild-card spot.
Websites that assign percentages to the probability of a team making the postseason say the Blue Jackets have the inside track. But coach Todd Richards isn’t buying that.
”I don’t listen to what the mathematicians are saying,” he said. ”It’s always about the next game. We’ve got to find wins. We’ve got to get points. We need to focus on what we can control, and that’s our next game.”
To earn the franchise’s second postseason trip in its 13 seasons, the Blue Jackets must survive four games in four cities over the span of 99 hours.
”We have to take care of business and work with the hand that we’re dealt,” defenseman Dalton Prout said. ”We’re going to do the best that we can and be positive with the whole situation.”
There is plenty on the line for Phoenix (36-28-14) as well. The Coyotes are mired in an 0-2-2 slide and are one point behind Dallas for the West’s final wild-card spot.
Phoenix has totaled four goals during the skid.
"Games are a lot tighter now," coach Dave Tippett said. "The start of the season, you see everybody is playing a little looser. Now you see every game is so important, goals are hard to come by."
The Coyotes have also gone 0-3-1 in their last four visits to Columbus, and they fell 2-0 at home to the Blue Jackets on Jan. 2.
Curtis McElhinney made 34 saves in that contest but Sergei Bobrovsky figures to get the start after notching his fifth shutout in Sunday’s 4-0 victory over the New York Islanders. Bobrovsky made 39 saves the last time he saw the Coyotes in a 1-0 shootout home win March 16, 2013.
"They’ve kind of based their identity on just being a real working group and solid goaltending and that’s what we expect to see," Tippett said.