Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Jack Johnson (7) handles the puck as Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury (29) and defenseman Kris Letang (58) defend during the third period at the CONSOL Energy Center. The Penguins won 2-1.
Charles LeClaire/Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport
The last three days were a welcome respite for NHL players and their families. The presents have all been opened and good meals were eaten. The decorations might still be hung by the chimney with care, but for now, the Christmas break is over. Another divisional opponent awaits them in the New Jersey Devils tonight.
The logjam within the Metropolitan Division shows no signs of abating anytime soon. With just two points separating the third place Philadelphia Flyers (38 points) and the seventh place Carolina Hurricanes (36 points), there is constant jockeying for position.
The Blue Jackets come out of the Christmas break in sixth place (36 points) with a record of 16-17-4. Over the last 10 games leading into the break, Columbus has the second best record in the division (behind the Pittsburgh Penguins), going 6-3-1 during that span. They have the third highest goals scored in the Metro (101) behind the Penguins (121) and the Washington Capitals (117). They also have the third highest goals allowed (106), with the New York Islanders (129) and the Capitals (112) leading the way.
Just four games removed from the halfway point of the season, can Columbus start separating themselves from the pack? They have shown flashes of the play that almost got them into the playoffs last year. Stating the obvious, maximizing the way that they play the game while minimizing their mistakes will hold them in good stead as the season unfolds.
"I think it’s us understanding that we are a team that needs to play with structure", said forward Nick Foligno. "When we commit to that, we’re a really good team. And when we waver from that, we’re not a good team, a low-level team in this league. I think that we’ve played this game enough that we know what kind of team we are to be successful."
"At the end of the day, there are guys in here that have been to the playoffs and have seen what it takes to win. As a team, we’re growing and have an understanding of what it takes to win."
With New Jersey just one point ahead of them in the Metro, tonight’s tilt is the proverbial "four point" game. They are still very much in the mix as they look to move up the standings. "I think it makes us hungrier", Foligno said. "I think, with the way that we started (season), we’ve played some really good hockey lately."
"We’re a young team. We’re going to have to continue to learn and grow. Everyone is focused on coming out with a real good game. We need to continue to push, because we’re right there."
Defenseman Jack Johnson knows that they have to remain focused on playing their game the right way. Every game is important, but divisional games carry a bit of extra weight. "You definitely look at the division games," said Johnson, "they’re four point games and there’s definitely and emphasis on that. We’re well aware (standings). But, it’s not like we take the other games any less seriously. We know that, where we are in terms of the standings and our division, we want to make the playoffs."
Rookie defenseman Ryan Murray is quietly having a good first year in the NHL. He’s played in all 37 games and is 3-6-9 with a +/- of -1. He’s learning what it takes to win and be a competitive team in the league. He sees the importance of winning on a consistent basis.
"We’re a few points out of a playoff spot", he said. "There’s a lot of games left, but we just want to make sure that we’re outplaying teams every single night from here on out. Win or lose, we want to outwork and out-compete the other teams. We want to control the puck and, if you do that, you’re going to win most games. That’s our goal every night."
"We all have to be on the same page. We all know what we have to do. We need everybody to ‘go’ if we’re going to have a chance to win. We need all four lines rolling and all six ‘D’ going."
"It’s a big credit to our forwards whenever we outwork teams because they have so much responsibility on the ice with the forecheck. When they’re going, that’s when we really control games. We try and help out as much as we can on the backend, try and keep pucks out of our net and get the pucks (to the forwards). We’ve just got to play as a group and I think we’ve done a pretty job of that lately."
The push for separation within the division continues tonight against the Devils. With only six weeks of hockey until the Olympic break, there’s no better time than the present to go on a winning run. They know what they have to do. The question remains, can they do it?