Sorry for the lapse in postings, but have been enjoying a bit of an All-Star Break myself, and have been working on a couple of long pieces that are not quite yet ready for prime time.
Good time had by all at the Jacket Backers All-Star Game Watching party at the Garage Bar. Good food, some great giveaways (including a team autographed jersey), and general cheering for Nash's three points, the first penalty in recent All Star memory and an All Star Shootout.
Horse racing enthusiasts will recognize the title of this piece, representing the beginning of the long downhill journey to the finish line. It is not yet time for the stretch run, we are in position, but need to use a little whip to put us where we want to be.
Reading Puck-Rakers today, I was amused by Tom Reed's piece, breaking down the next 13 games, determining that the Jackets can and should go 9 - 3 -1 over this stretch, then basically crafting it into an expectation, strongly intimating that nothing less will do if we are to make the playoffs. Whoa!! Time for a sanity check here. Let's take a look at how the Western Conference would look at season's end if every team continued playing at the same pace they played up to the All Star break: (Division Winners get top 3 seeds)
1. San Jose -- 133 points
2. Detroit -- 121 points
3. Calgary -- 107 points
4. Chicago -- 106 points
5. Edmonton -- 91 points
6. Phoenix -- 91 points
7. Minnesota -- 87 points
8. Vancouver -- 87 points
9. Dallas -- 86 points
10. Columbus -- 85 points
11. Anaheim -- 85 points
12. Colorado -- 82 points
13. Los Angeles -- 80 points
14. Nashville -- 77 points
15. St. Louis -- 75 points
So, as it stands today, 87 points gets you in the playoffs, and 8 teams are vying for 4 spots (Nashville and St. Louis have huge hills to climb, and Los Angeles plays 24 of its final 36 on the road) Finish in the top half of that group, and you are in. Let's even be generous and say that everyone steps up their game, so that 90 points is the number.
If the Jackets follow Tom Reed's formula, and indeed go 9 - 3 - 1 over the next 13, that will put them at 68 points with 22 games left. A very easy calculation shows that .500 hockey (by points) gets them home -- 10-10-2, for example. Very nice situation to have, but hardly essential. 20 - 14 - 1 gets us to the magic 90, as does 18-12-5. All very doable. Here are the keys/reasons I see us having what it takes to reach the promised land, and bring playoff hockey to Nationwide:
Road Warriors -- The CBJ have only 15 road games left -- and only 1 significant road stretch -- a three game NW Canada swing, a home game vs. LA, then away at Detroit and Nashville. Three road games are against Eastern Conference teams, against whom we have enjoyed considerable success. In contrast, every other contending team faces more road games: Phoenix (17), Edmonton (17), Vancouver (17), Minnesota (20), Dallas (17), Colorado (18), Los Angeles (24). The CBJ have become increasingly good at home, and the fans have generated more energy. This symbiosis should continue.
Health -- At a time of year when most teams are getting hurt and exhausted, we are getting healthy and rested. Chimera, Novotny, Klesla all give us depth and options as we emerge from the far turn and head into the stretch.
Confidence -- The Jackets have gone through a baptism of fire with their brutal injury record and the most arduous road stretch of the season. Our offense, without many of its key parts, found its stride and scored lots of goals in the NW Canada stretch, enabling us to salvage 3 of 6 points on that trip. No matter what the score, they know they have the ability to bring the win home. As the pressure builds, the veterans will guide the youngsters and this confidence will serve as a buttress for the boys.
Pacing -- Hitch has had to go hard to the whip over the past several weeks, due to the injury situation. He knew it was a risk, but he really had no choice, if they were to stay in this race. Now that we are in the thick of it, watch him be a bit more judicious about overusing his resources. He won't jeopardize wins, but he will want fresh legs. Short shifts, maximum focus will be his bywords.
Howson -- If anyone had any doubts about Howson (after Tyutin, Commodore, Umberger, Huselius, how could you?), they should have been put to rest by the Jason Williams deal. Howson recognized that Atlanta was misusing Williams, who can make plays with the puck, and shared the line with Kovalchuk, who also demands the puck. Two guys, one puck, bad combo. We get Williams at a great discount, and it pays immediate dividends. Howson has at least one more up his sleeve and will pull the trigger once he sees what our true health situation is.
Hitch -Hockey -- We have found some offensive legs, now time to return to the stingy defensive ways that got us where we are. We are only 4 goals short of being even in the goals for/goals against column. (In contrast, Phoenix and Edmonton are -13 and -6 in this stat). We need to dictate tempo, stand people up at the blue line, and create lanes for our goaltenders to see. Keep the blue paint clear, and we will do well.
Special Teams -- Yes, the power play needs to improve, and the PK needs to regain the form it had before the Vancouver/Edmonton/Calgary trip. Here, I think our confidence and return to Hitch-Hockey will take over. We have a bunch of guys playing well together now, and a PP quarterback who can really move the puck. Look for big improvement here.
In short, there are tons of reasons to be optimistic for the last 3/8 mile of this 1 mile race. Keep in mind that the listing above is premised upon everyone playing at the same pace as they have for the rest of the season. In the CBJ case, that pace includes an early season when our guys were learning each other's names, let alone playing together. Other teams were wildly hot. Things have a way of evening out, and this works to the CBJ's advantage.
Win or lose, playoffs or not, this team is by far the best we have ever fielded, and are a lot of fun to watch right now. Nationwide is a great place to be on game nights, and excitement is building. We know we will get effort every night, and that we will be in every game. Those are great things to have going for us as we head into February. Go Jackets!