The Blue Jackets are undefeated against the Maple Leafs this season, beating them on Oct. 25 and Nov. 25 by a combined score of 11-2.
One of my favorite teams to watch from afar if only for the never-ending drama that they create. I mean, here’s a team that has been bumbling around the nether-reaches of the NHL’s standings for years. They finally make the playoffs once, and now it’s as if they’re defending Stanley Cup champions. For a fourth-place team in their division – one sitting comfortably in playoff position – there sure are a lot of articles about "What is wrong with the Leafs." If Columbus media had as many of those pieces about the Blue Jackets, the Columbus Police Department would have to position officers on rooftops to stop CBJ fans from jumping.
Really, Toronto, your team isn’t bad. It might not be 1968 Stanley Cup winning good, nor is it able to beat the Blue Jackets thus far, but it’s not bad.
And while the Leafs need to tighten up their defense – something surely of concern to team captain Dion Phaneuf, a defenseman himself – the fun in watching Toronto these days is the chance to see forward Phil Kessel, notable for his tour de force on the 2014 US Olympic men’s hockey team, sniping away. Kessel is so good at hockey. He can make the difficult look easy and, occasionally, pull some ridiculous move out of his hat and make everyone – fans and opponents alike – sit back in their chairs and say, "Wow."
The Leafs are three points out of second place in the Atlantic and four points ahead of current Eastern Conference wild card position thief Detroit. (Depending on the number of standings points at the end of the season, the fifth place Atlantic team could take the fourth place Metropolitan team…which makes Columbus’ fifth place Metro ranking all that much more difficult to overcome.
Top scorers in Toronto are:
– Forward Phil Kessel (33 goals, 36 assists, 69 points)
– Forward James Van Riemsdyk (26 G, 26 A, 52 pts.)
– Forward Nazem Kadri (15 G, 27 A, 42 pts.)
– Forward Joffrey Lupul (18 G, 17 A, 35 pts.)
– Forward Mason Raymond (16 G, 19 A, 35 pts.)
See what I mean about Kessel? He’s a scoring machine.
The Leafs aren’t saying anything that I have seen (and knowing the hundreds of media outlets covering the Leafs, it’s hard not to), but I think it’s safe to presume that Johnathan Bernier will be the starter tonight in goal. With 40 starts, Bernier is 22-16-7, a 2.63 goals against average and a .924 save percentage.
WHY THIS GAME IS IMPORTANT:
We’re back in business!
After the first period implosion against New Jersey last week that proved too big to overcome, the Blue Jackets blew the doors off of the Florida Panthers on Saturday afternoon. Keeping in mind that the Blue Jackets apparently have to more or less win every three out of five games in the post-Olympic stretch run, the Florida win gave the CBJ room to breathe. I’m not entirely sure that they should feel comfortable until they have a playoff spot locked up, what with the wild card situation and all, but they can at least breathe.
Tonight’s another test: A better – not by much, but better – team on the road. The point totals for the top of the Leafs’ scoring chart are eye-popping. Consider that the top Blue Jackets scorer, Ryan Johansen, has 47 points. After that, Brandon Dubinsky has 37. Sure, it’s all Kessel, but it doesn’t make the difference any less real. This game will not be a gimme, not by any means.
The Wednesday, 3 p.m. trade deadline continues to loom. Hockey magazine publisher The Fourth Period – friends of the Blue Jackets, at least from a promotional point of view – posted on their website that the Blue Jackets are shopping forward Marian Gaborik. Other sources are suggesting other combinations of forwards leaving town. I can’t say I’m surprised at any of the scuttlebutt coming out of Nationwide Boulevard thus far, but I’m still waiting to see an actual trade happen. Realistically, I don’t think anything will. Still, the deadline makes players jittery and gives heightened importance to tonight and tomorrow’s games.
WHO I’LL BE WATCHING:
Ryan Johansen had a couple of assists on Saturday, so who knows? Perhaps there’s a "DBJ blessing" from appearing in this section.
If that’s the case, let’s try another guy that I’d love to see get cooking. Brandon Dubinsky had an assist on Saturday, but the six-goal barrage was so substantial that it seemed like nearly everyone on the roster had either a goal or an assist. Tonight’s a tougher challenge, and I’d love to see one of the team’s hard-working "energy" players break out and grab a clutch goal.
YOUR FOX SPORTS OHIO BROADCAST INFORMATION:
Are we back in the CBJ routine yet, now that the Olympics have been over for a little while? Then repeat the schedule lineup after me:
– Brian Giesenschlag’s "Blue Jackets Slap Shots" magazine show airs a new episode (remember, new episodes on Monday) at 6 p.m.
– Brian and Dan Kamal bring you the "Blue Jackets Live Pregame" at 6:30 p.m.
– The puck drops at 7 p.m., with Jeff Rimer and Bill Davidge on the call.
– Brian and Dan return immediately following for "Blue Jackets Live Postgame" with insight and analysis.
The March to the Playoffs is on! Enjoy the game tonight.