Blue Jackets must reverse slide now to keep playoff hopes alive

The Blue Jackets find themselves in a scrum to make the Eastern Conference playoffs.

Rob Leifheit

What a difference a few days make.

Less than a week ago, the Columbus Blue Jackets were coming off what looked to be a signature win, a thrilling 3-2 road victory over the Montreal Canadiens on a highlight-reel goal by Ryan Johansen. The two points propelled the Blue Jackets into third place in the Metropolitan Division.

The following night, in a scintillating divisional matchup against the New York Rangers, Columbus fell late, a loss that dropped them out of the top three and into the wild card mix. Then, without playing Saturday, Columbus dropped out of the playoff picture altogether because of wins by the Detroit Red Wings and the Washington Capitals. Another regulation loss by the Blue Jackets Sunday on Long Island meant a missed opportunity to make up any of that ground.

That’s the way it’s been going in the East for much of the second half of the season. There is simply no room for error, because most teams in the playoff hunt in the Eastern Conference are playing some of their best hockey of the season. Sure, Toronto has stumbled of late. But just when you thought the Montreal Canadiens may be slipping, the rouge, blanc, and bleu staged one of the best comebacks in NHL history against the Ottawa Senators and have been on a roll since.

And when the Washington Capitals looked vulnerable, all the Caps did was go out to California and take five of a possible six points against three of the top teams in the West – the Ducks, Kings, and Sharks. Meanwhile, the Flyers look pretty much uncatchable, despite Monday night’s one-goal loss to L.A.

All of that magnifies the Blue Jackets recent slip, losing three of the last four games, all of those losses coming in regulation. In the middle of the season, that wouldn’t raise too many red flags. In the heat of the playoff chase, with points at an absolute premium, there are red flags everywhere. There are just not enough games left to withstand a continued slump, especially for a team that’s now on the outside looking in.

Fan pressed up against boards goes flying at Blue Jackets game

With teams in the East playing so well, the situation gets even more urgent for Columbus, which simply has to turn things around immediately, starting with the Tuesday battle against the Red Wings, to have any realistic chance at the postseason. And the turnaround for the Blue Jackets likely has to start in the offensive end and on the power play.

In the team’s last five games, Columbus has scored a grand total of six goals — that’s simply not enough. And the power play is an incredible zero for 35 over the past nine games. Coach Todd Richards is hoping it’s only a matter of time, since his team is creating looks in the offensive zone.

"When you go back and look at the games, other than probably the Islander game, you know we’ve had some opportunities," said Richards. "We just haven’t been able to finish. And the power play hasn’t been very good — it has to be better. We’ve had opportunities, and we’re not executing, whether it’s our entries into the zone or in the zone. To me, we’re moving slow at times. We’re methodical and stationary, instead of snapping around a lot of motion and movement and shooting the puck."

Whatever is ailing the Blue Jackets offensively, they have to find a way to start finishing and finding the back of the net. Two weeks ago against the Red Wings, Columbus played one of its most complete games of the year, eventually grinding to a hard-fought 4-1 win with three late goals. The team looked every bit a playoff contender that night.

It needs to find that look again, now. Other teams in the East aren’t opening the playoff door for Columbus. The Blue Jackets are going to have to figure out a way to knock it down themselves.