Today marks the biggest game of the year for the Columbus Blue Jackets. Again. But this déjà vu is quite acceptable. It’s definitely not Phil Connors’ (Bill Murray’s) Groundhog Day déjà vu, with Sonny and Cher still blurting “I’ve Got You, Babe” after the radio has been smashed beyond recognition.
Games like tonight’s mammoth matchup with the St. Louis Blues at Nationwide Arena are exactly the kinds of games this young, persistent, and surprising team wants to play this time of the year. It’s a game that matters, a lot, and this team can’t get enough of them. Just ask Columbus defenseman Jack Johnson.
“We understand the magnitude of the game and what it means to us in the standings,” he said. “I think it’s a little more important to us than it is to St. Louis. Not that it’s not important to them, but it’s definitely crucial to us. We’re trying to climb into the playoffs, and right now they are in the playoff picture. Right now we’re trying to catch Detroit, and it’s a huge game for us. These are games you want to play in. They’re meaningful games, and they’re exciting. Everyone’s excited to come to the rink. It’ll be a fun game.”
With a quick check of the standings and schedule, it’s easy to see why this game against the Blues is about as much a “must” win as any game the Blue Jackets have played this year.
Columbus enters the game tied for 10th in the Western Conference at 41 points, just three back of No. 8 Detroit. If they beat the Blues, Saturday’s game in Minnesota vs. the No. 7 Wild (46 points) holds even greater implications for the Blue Jackets.
Center Mark Letestu can do the math, and he knows what’s at stake against the Blues.
“We have two home games remaining on the schedule and both of them are division rivals,” Letestu said. “This is a game we have to have, especially with the comments around the Phoenix-Edmonton game (Wednesday night) and how they were talking about the team that lost that game would be out of the playoffs. We’re in that same boat. We’ve only got eight games, 16 possible points, and we need as many as we can get. We don’t know what the magic number is going to be, so as many as we can get is the focus here.”
James Wisniewski has been through this before. When he was sent to Anaheim at the trade deadline in 2009, he joined a Ducks team that was just below the playoff bar, looking up. With a late surge, Anaheim moved into the eighth spot and upset top seed San Jose in the first round before falling in seven games to eventual Western Conference champion Detroit.
Wisniewski knows exactly what the St. Louis game means to his Columbus team.
“We need points to make the playoffs,” he said. “And this is our goal. Every team’s goal is to win the Stanley Cup every year; anything less than that we fall short. So Friday’s game is very imperative. We have to bear down. We know they’re going to be coming hard. And in this shortened season it’s just a lot of fun to be part of this.”
There’s that word again: Fun. Speedy forward Matt Calvert is having a blast these days, and it isn’t just because he’s having what many would call a breakout season. It’s the chance to play meaningful games when the populace is (at least some of the time) wearing shorts and T-shirts.
“Yeah, I think when you’re out of the playoff race like we were the last two years, you have a tougher time finding motivation” Calvert explained. “I mean, there’s always something to play for; you want to play for the fans all the time. But it’s a lot of fun being in that race, and, you know, looking at the standings, you realize every game you win you move that much closer. So, it’s a great time of year, and I hope we can just keep on winning and move forward with this.”
Every Blue Jackets fan and player would second that motion, none more so than veteran forward Derek MacKenzie, who hasn’t often had this much bounce in his step this late in the season.
“Well, this is awesome,” MacKenzie smiled. “I mean, I haven’t walked around this time of year in such a good mood in a long time. I mean, to be in it is just a ton of fun, there’s a sense of pride there, and it’s exciting. Every one of these games lately has been a ton of fun.”
Meanwhile, the Blues are intent on disrupting the Blue Jackets’ feel-good story. St. Louis has been one of the hottest teams in the NHL lately, winning six straight and allowing just five goals in the process, including three straight shutouts for goalie Brian Elliott. Wisniewski was succinct when asked how Columbus can deal with the Blues’ smothering style.
“We have to be faster than them; we have to be more tenacious. They have a fast ‘D.’ We have to outwork them down low,” he said.
Columbus defenseman Dalton Prout is very aware of the challenge the Blues present.
“I think they’re a team that wants to more often than not try and go through you. They have a relentless forecheck, so a pushback is going to be important to show we’re not going to be pushed around, and we can play physical, too. I’m looking forward to the game.”
And why wouldn’t he? This is a big game. Another very big game.