The Columbus Blue Jackets laid the lumber to the Philadelphia Flyers, 5-2, at Nationwide Arena in the divisional rivals' last meeting. The Blue Jackets lead the series, 2-1, with home team holding serve in every game. Tonight's game is in Philadelphia. Gulp.
You can't help but admire what Philadelphia did this season. Management recognized that something was terribly wrong with their team after losing their first three games (and, apparently, a really bad training camp) and fired their coach. Since then, they've not only recovered from the slow start - they're put themselves into third place in the division, all without having messed terribly with the roster. A decisive in-season move by management pays off. That's what teams that are bent on winning do.
Since playing last, the Flyers are 14-7-3. In their last ten, they're 6-2-2. The last two games were shootout losses, but they were shootout losses to arguably the best teams in their respective conferences, the Boston Bruins (East) and St. Louis Blues (West). When you play the best in the league to a standstill in back-to-back games, that pretty much is a signal that you're operating on all cylinders.
Former Blue Jacket Steve Mason will get the start in goal after skipping the January 23rd game at Nationwide. I largely don't care who the Blue Jackets end up playing in the playoffs - I just want them to qualify at this point - but a Blue Jackets-Flyers game would be so rich with texture simply by virtue of Mason in net for the Flyers. Can you imagine the reception he would receive at Nationwide?
Anyway, Mason has 56 starts, is 31-17-7 and has a 2.53 goals against average. He's carrying a save percentage of .916.
WHY THIS GAME IS IMPORTANT:
First and foremost, the Blue Jackets are in the final Eastern Conference Wild Card seed. If they want to stay in the playoff picture, they must win. Don't care who they're playing...they must win.
If the CBJ harbor any dreams of elevating themselves out of wild card position and into a 2/3 seed series in the first round, they need to deny Philadelphia any points. As in, beat Philly in regulation. Currently, the New York Rangers are in second place in the Metro Division with 90 points, and the Flyers are in third with 87. Columbus is in fourth with 83. I can't see how the CBJ can make up a six point deficit (should they lose tonight) against the Flyers with six games to play, but a win tonight puts them within two points...and that's well within striking distance.
Lastly, tonight opens the first of three back-to-back game sequences to close out the season. The CBJ will get increasingly tired as the season winds down due to the historically challenging final ten days scheduling. The team will be at their freshest tonight, and they need to capitalize on that to grab two standings points. The experts are saying that the playoff cutoff number will be 92 points in the East, and that means that the CBJ need to find nine points in the next nine games. No time like the present, eh?
WHO I'LL BE WATCHING:
After an extended period of healthy scratches, it appears that R.J. Umberger will be back in the lineup tonight. All kidding aside (and there's so much when you're reactivated only to face a crowd in a city that's known for pelting opposing players with batteries and chucking snowballs at Santa Claus, I'm interested to see how he responds.
The obvious parallel with Umberger is Cam Atkinson, who spent a couple games up in the press box. Atkinson suggested that the coaching staff talked to him about it and, more or less, challenged him to find his game within the constructs of the team's on-ice scheme. He's done just that, scoring twice in the past four games. (A goal every other game makes you a 41-goal scorer in this league...nothing to sneeze at!) So clearly, Atkinson was benched in the hopes that he would get a message.
But what of Umberger? R.J. is one of the team's long-time veterans on this young roster, seven years older than Atkinson. He's one of three players older than 30. I can see coach Todd Richards trying to send Umberger a message when the games aren't as critical, but now? No, I'm going with Richards' statement that the other players are just playing better than he is right now. There's a huge difference there, that Umberger isn't necessarily playing bad or worse than he usually plays but rather the talent around him is playing better. So I look at this series of scratches as a competitive firestarter.
The question remains, will Umberger take advantage of the opportunity presented to make a positive impact in tonight's game? That's why we watch.
YOUR FOX SPORTS OHIO BROADCAST INFORMATION:
FOX Sports Ohio has it all for you tonight:
- Brian Giesenschlag's "Blue Jackets Slap Shots" magazine show kicks it off at 6PM.
- Brian and Dan Kamal bring you the "Blue Jackets Live Pregame" with the late-breaking news and info, as well as a full preview of the game, at 6:30PM.
- The puck drops in Philly at 7PM, with Jeff Rimer and Bill Davidge on the call.
- Brian and Dan return immediately following for "Blue Jackets Live Postgame" with postgame interviews, insight and analysis.