With three games left in the regular season, the Blue Jackets (44-29-6) are close to clinching a spot in the postseason for the second consecutive year. A win at Nationwide Arena over the Detroit Red Wings (30-38-11) would secure a place in the field.
In the tightly bunched Metropolitan Division, the Blue Jackets and Philadelphia Flyers share third place with 94 points. Both have three games left.
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The New Jersey Devils are lurking one point behind in the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference. The Florida Panthers still have faint hopes but need basically a miracle to get in.
“I think everyone is aware of the situation as far as the standings go,” Blue Jackets defenseman Ian Cole said, “but you try not to get too wrapped up in it. You want to concentrate on what the Columbus Blue Jackets have to do out on the ice. Having that mindset has led to some success for us.”
The Blue Jackets and Flyers still have a chance to move up in the standings. Both enter Tuesday’s games just two points behind Cole’s former team, the Pittsburgh Penguins, for second place in the Metro.
With the Penguins idle and the Flyers playing the New York Islanders on Tuesday, the evening could end with a three-way tie for second. Then, two nights later, the Blue Jackets play host to the Penguins.
Finishing second in the division would mean home-ice advantage in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and so there’s still plenty to play for this week. The Blue Jackets close the season on Saturday at Nashville.
But Columbus coach John Tortorella refused to talk about the scenarios, repeatedly deflecting questions about the playoffs.
“I’m pleased that we still have an opportunity to play another game and we’re still in the hunt,” Tortorella said. “Get ready for Detroit. I’m happy that game means something.”
Asked again about the NHL postseason, Tortorella answered, “I’m glad tomorrow is an important game for us.”
The Blue Jackets practiced Monday at less than full strength.
“We just have a little bit of sickness running through the team,” Tortorella said.
One player he’s definitely ruling out Tuesday is defenseman Markus Nutivaara, who is day to day after suffering an upper-body injury in the Blue Jackets’ 5-4 overtime loss on Saturday in Vancouver to the Canucks.
Defenseman Jack Jackson, a healthy scratch the past few games, could be a candidate to replace Nutivaara. Sergei Bobrovsky also is expected back in goal after sitting out Saturday in Vancouver.
The Blue Jackets finished March with a 12-3-1 record, going 12-1-1 in their past 14 games. They closed the month by rallying from a three-goal deficit in the final minutes against the Canucks to force overtime and pick up a point in the standings.
Cam Atkinson scored one of the goals in the comeback, giving him a seven-game points streak, and Artemi Panarin had four assists in the game, giving him 25 points in March.
“It’s a great lesson for our team that it’s never over, especially in this league here right now,” Tortorella said. “There’s so many mistakes made that you never know what’s going to happen.”
The Red Wings aren’t going to the playoffs, but they’re not going down without a respectable fight. They bring a three-game winning streak to Columbus after beating the Ottawa Senators 2-0 on Sunday.
“I’ve asked these guys for a couple weeks now to go out and compete like crazy,” Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill said, according to the Detroit Free Press. “They’ve continued to do that. And even when it was tough, they kept competing like crazy. I’m not looking them in the eyes and not putting together a good lineup.”
At the same time, winning could actually hurt the Red Wings’ prospects of getting a high pick in this summer’s draft.
“I understand the importance of trying to get that first pick. I’m not naive to that,” Blashill said. “But would you want athletes that didn’t play to win? That would be crazy. We’re going to play to win tomorrow night. We’re going to do everything we can and we’ll see what the result is.”
Red Wings goaltender Jimmy Howard, who posted his first shutout of the season on Sunday, agreed with his coach.
“We still want to go out there, we still want to perform, we still want to play our best, we still, you know, want to win games,” Howard said.