Columbus, OH, USA; Columbus Blue Jackets left wing Matt Calvert (11) and Nashville Predators defenseman Ryan Ellis (4) battle for the puck during the second period at Nationwide Arena.
Russell LaBounty/Russell LaBounty-USA TODAY Sports
You can’t miss him when he’s on the ice. Matt Calvert seems to have one speed when he’s skating the wing for the Columbus Blue Jackets: All out.
And it’s not just his speed that makes him stand out; his physicality is also very evident shift to shift. Calvert is one of the team’s most relentless forecheckers. His modus operandi is to get into the offensive zone with speed and do whatever it takes to gain possession of the puck. He’s a crasher and banger, an old-school, tough hockey player.
One of the higher compliments you can pay a hockey player is to say he plays bigger than his size. If you throw that compliment out in a conversation about Calvert, you’d be 100 percent correct. The Manitoba native is listed at 5’11, 187, and without question, he plays a bigger man’s game.
When he’s in the lineup, the Blue Jackets are 10-7-1 this season. When he’s out with injury, as he has been for 26 games this year, the team is 10-13-3. There’s no doubt Columbus is a better team when Calvert is healthy enough to play. He’s become an impact player in his fourth year as a pro, but is his physical style — relative to his size — worrisome, given the number of games he’s missed this season?
"No, not at all," Calvert replied quickly. "I think the first injury (abdominal) may have been a few years building up; it had bothered me a little bit in the past, but stuff like that happens.
"The second injury (shoulder), I was in an awkward position and took a hard hit. It is what it is, and I think it’s part of playing professional hockey. You’ve got to find a way to feel comfortable, mentally get past it and come back better than ever."
The 5th-round choice of the Blue Jackets in 2008 (how good was that pick?), Calvert came back with a little more than 15 minutes of time on ice and was plus-one in the shutout win over the Hurricanes Friday night at Nationwide Arena. He knows this is crunch time if his team is going to make a run at a playoff berth, and he’s glad he can try to help make that happen.
"I’m real excited," he said with a broad smile. "You know, we’ve been hanging around, keeping ourselves close, and I think other teams had been doing what we’ve been doing — win one, lose one. Now it’s time for us to step it up. Other teams (in the Metropolitan Division) have.
"You’ve seen Philly, they’ve won 10 in a row at home or whatever it is," Calvert continued. "You don’t deserve to be in the playoff race if you don’t do something like that. I think the boys want it in here; we’ve made a run in the past, and we’re going to do the right things to do it."
With a healthy Calvert, that all seems a lot more realistic.
For most of the season, the Metropolitan Division has been the butt of jokes among NHL fans and pundits for the generally mediocre results produced by the majority of teams in the division. But those who continue to ridicule the Metro teams aren’t really paying attention.
For the past month or so, all seven teams jockeying for the (likely) two remaining playoff spots behind the Pittsburgh Penguins are playing winning hockey. Going into the weekend, the Philadelphia Flyers had won eight of their last 10 and absolutely couldn’t be beaten at home.
Carolina’s five-game winning streak was ended by Columbus Friday, but the ‘Canes had lost only three of their past 10 in regulation. The Rangers and Islanders have also been red-hot, both teams picking up seven wins in their past 10 games. And the Columbus Blue Jackets have gone 6-4-0 over the same span of games.
All of a sudden, teams in the Metro are threatening teams in the Atlantic Division for overall seeding positions for the upcoming playoffs. For the division, that’s good news. Ultimately, when people really start paying attention, the jokes will stop, and maybe we’ll start to hear some accolades, however reluctant, thrown the Metro’s way.
The bad news is for those teams — like Columbus — trying to work their way back into the playoff picture, the pressure to win now is enormous. The bar throughout the division has been raised, and catching teams in the standings is now that much harder.