Blue Jackets start critical five-game stretch inside the Metro

Head coach Todd Richards admits the Flyers will be the first of many tough teams the Blue Jackets will face in a crucial upcoming stretch of divisional play.

Russell LaBounty/Russell LaBounty-USA TODAY Sport

You’ll understand if the Columbus Blue Jackets are focused on more than just Christmas lists these days. That list of teams in the NHL’s Metropolitan Division, ranked in order of success this season, is surely also drawing their attention.

With the calendar creeping swiftly toward the season’s midpoint, the Jackets still find themselves on the outside of the playoff mix, looking in, and NHL history tells us time isn’t necessarily on their side. Late-season runs certainly happen in the league — witness the mad dash to the finish Columbus staged last season — but they’re not all that common. To paraphrase Newton, teams that are in the playoff mix after the holidays tend to stay in the mix after the holidays.

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Yes, the Blue Jackets know where they stand in the Metro, and they know the five-game stretch that begins in Philadelphia and ends with a home game against Pittsburgh, could be instrumental in determining playoff aspirations.

"Yeah, definitely," Ryan Johansen said of the upcoming five games in a row inside the Metro Division. "Even in the last week, there were a couple of games in our division. These are two huge ones against Philly. They’re another team really close to us in the standings, and they’re huge points for our club."

Actually, the first four games of this stretch — the home-and-home against the Flyers, then on the road against Carolina and New Jersey before and after Christmas – are all against teams really close to the Blue Jackets in the standings. Going into the start of the stretch, Columbus is only three points behind the Hurricanes and just two behind both the Flyers and Devils. Johansen is looking forward to the challenge but admits it’s a little strange not having seen some of these teams, e.g., the Flyers and Hurricanes in a while.

"Well, I haven’t played them (the Flyers) in two years, but I hear a lot about them," said the Blue Jackets center. "They’re a physical, fast team, and they have a lot of talent over there that we’re going to have to watch and be aware of. They’re no different than most teams in the NHL these days — big, strong, fast, and they’re playing some good hockey as of late."

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Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards agrees the Flyers will present a challenge for his team as it begins this enormous intra-divisional stretch of games.

"I watched their game on Sunday vs. Washington, and they were controlling a good portion of that game (the Caps came back from a 4-1 deficit to win in a shootout). They were in control until the last 10 minutes of that game, and they beat Washington (Tuesday) night," said Richards.

"So based on where they were at the start of the season and where they are now, they’ve turned it around, and they’re playing good hockey. It’s not easy playing in that building. They have lots of different elements; they have size, they have grit, they have skill. It’ll be a challenge for us."

The fact that the Blue Jackets are still depleted by injuries makes the start of this five-game block even more challenging, and daunting. But all teams are dealing with injuries, so don’t expect to hear much from the Blue Jackets locker room about who’s missing from the roster at the moment.

Instead, expect to hear more about the importance of the games that surround the Christmas break. Sure, it’s only five games. But because all will be played within the Metro division, they become four-point tests at a time of the season when a Blue Jackets team on the outside looking in is starting to feel some urgency to break into the playoff mix.