PREVIEW: Blue Jackets begin key stretch by hosting Maple Leafs

PREVIEW: Blue Jackets begin key stretch by hosting Maple Leafs

It might be a bit of a stretch to call it up a “put up or shut up” week for Columbus, but then again, it might not. The Blue Jackets host Toronto (seventh in the NHL in points percentage), travel to take on Florida (second) and Carolina (third) on the road, and then return home Sunday evening to welcome Pittsburgh (ninth) to town. 

It’s a challenge for sure, but one the Blue Jackets say they welcome. 

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“It’s one of those things where we know we can play with these teams,” alternate captain Zach Werenski said. “It’s doing it for a full 60 (minutes) consistently and not having breakdowns and turnovers, just playing the right way. It should be exciting for us. We should be excited as a group for this.”

The good news heading into the stretch is the Jackets are playing some good hockey at the moment. Columbus has won seven of its last nine and five of six since the All-Star break, and the biggest thing going right is on the offensive end. The Blue Jackets’ 42 goals in that nine-game span are the most ever in franchise history, while Columbus has posted seven goals in back-to-back games for the first time in franchise annals as well.  

The bad news? Columbus has had a difficult time this year stacking up against the best. The Blue Jackets are 4-12-0 this season against teams in the top 10 in the NHL in points percentage, and in seven of those 12 losses, Columbus has given up six-plus goals. 

There are certainly some bright spots — Columbus swept the top team in the league, Colorado, earlier this year to name one — but head coach Brad Larsen knows his team is in for a measuring stick week ahead. 

“I don’t like to look too far ahead, but the schedule is in front of me and I look at it,” Larsen said. “You see four top-10 teams coming. They’re balanced. They’re dangerous. They are built to win and win now. The margin for error goes down. Your competitiveness has to go up, your pick management has to be sharp, all those factors, how we arrive, how we exit, it just has to be cleaner. 

“The margin for error is smaller, and they sting you. Even the Calgary game (last Tuesday, a 6-2 loss), we were in it at 2-1. You make a couple of mistakes and it’s in your net. It is a good test for us, and we’ll try to rise to the challenge.” 

As Larsen said, the biggest thing the Blue Jackets must focus on is consistency. It’s perhaps the biggest factor in pro sports in general, but it hits home for Columbus as a number of those losses against the top teams have included good minutes until a few critical mistakes put the Jackets behind the eight ball. 

“They’re in the position they’re in for a reason,” Werenski said of facing the best. “A lot of them have been together for a while here, a little bit older, they know how to play. The lessons we’re learning this year, they’ve learned in the past. It’s one of those things they know what it takes to be successful, and they’re playing playoff-type hockey right now to get ready for it. 

“It goes back to just being another step for our group. We know we can play with Toronto, it’s just doing it for a full 60. If we do that, I think the results will be on our side.” 

Know the Foe 

Toronto is once again being billed as a potential Cup contender, but as usual, the success of the season will come down to whether this team will be able to handle its checkered playoff history as the Leafs have not won a playoff series since 2004. 

That’s a story for the spring, though, and right now Toronto is one of the top teams in the league with a third-place standing in the Atlantic Division behind only Florida and Tampa Bay. While the offensive skills of such names as Auston Matthews, Mitchell Marner and John Tavares lead the way, part of the success this year has been an improved defense led by the play of All-Star goaltender Jack Campbell. 

Toronto remains one of the top scoring teams in the league, putting in 3.55 goals per game to place fourth in the NHL, while the team’s power play clicks at 31.1 percent, not just tops in the NHL but a mark that threatens to match the league single-season record of 31.9 percent set by Montreal in 1977-78. 

But the Leafs also have been one of the more solid defensive teams in the league on balance — other than last night’s 5-2 loss at Montreal that should have them smarting tonight — placing 10th in the league at 2.78 goals allowed per game and fifth in penalty kill at 84.8 percent. If there is any concern, though, it’s that the special teams have led the way, with the team’s goals ratio of 1.11 for at 5-on-5 placing 12th in the league below other such contenders as Florida, Carolina, Calgary and Colorado. 

By now, the names on the Leafs roster are well known to hockey fans. Matthews leads the way, as his 33 goals are tied for second in the NHL while his 59 points are tied for eighth, and he’s been particularly hot of late with an 8-10-18 line in the last 11 games.  

Four other Leafs have topped the 40-point mark, led by a breakout season by William Nylander (19-28-47), another tremendous season from captain Tavares (17-29-46), Marner posting 12 points in the last eight games to get to 17-28-45 on the year, and Morgan Rielly placing 11th in the NHL and fifth among league defensemen with 37 assists among his 43 points. Michael Bunting also has been a find, as the first-year Leaf has 16 goals and 33 points. 

In net, Campbell has turned into one of the league’s most dependable goalies since joining the team, and this year he’s 23-8-3 in 36 games (35 starts) to go with a 2.41 goals-against average, .922 save percentage.