The Columbus Blue Jackets have not done themselves any favors heading in to their first playoff appearance in franchise history. Looking like they had the #6 seed all locked up and a date with the Northwest Division champions, the Jackets won just one of their final five games and failed to get a point in their final two games. Unable to secure the #6 seed in the Western Conference, the Jackets' biggest thorn, the St. Louis Blues, now get to open the playoffs in Vancouver. The Jackets are now forced to carry the flag into Hockeytown for a first round series with the defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings.
The Blue Jackets split the season series 3-3 with the Red Wings, including an 8-2 drubbing of the Winged Wheel at Joe Louis Arena on March 7. The following matchup, just a week later, the Red Wings reasserted their reputation by completely stifling Columbus at Nationwide Arena in a 4-0 win. The win marked the 9th consecutive 100+ point season for the Wings. After the game, Rick Nash quipped, "They showed us why they're the best team in the league".
The 8-2 game was a complete aberration. Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, and Nicklas Lidstrom combined for a -10 rating. I don't know for sure, but I assume that has never happened before, and probably never will again. Columbus defended home ice in two of those three games, but was outshot in five of the six contests. Rick Nash did have two hat tricks this season against Detroit, including all three Columbus goals in a 3-2 OT win back on January 27. The Jackets were 3-2 against Detroit with Steve Mason.
The NHL playoffs are all about getting the right matchup. The home team gets the final line change, the biggest advantage to having home ice, even including the 7th man in the crowd. Creating mismatches and subsequent offensive chances can easily decide a series.
1. Rick Nash v. Nicklas Lidstrom
The Blue Jackets offense goes as Rick Nash goes. It has been a recurring theme since Nash was drafted in 2003. While they have more depth this year, Rick Nash is still the catalyst. He had six goals in two games against Detroit this year. He had no points and was -4 in the four games in which he did not score.
Interestingly, in the 3-2 OT W for the Jackets, Hitchcock got Nash's line out there against the Kronwall pairing for Detroit. In the 8-2 W, two of Nash's goals came on special teams when Lidstrom was on the ice. This shows the ability to both coaches to use home ice to their advantage.
2. Tomas Holmstrom v. Steve Mason
Steve Mason is a very solid goaltender. In watching several of his games, it is very clear to see that his positioning is top notch and his fundamentals are very sound. Many of the goals Steve Mason has allowed have been shots that he was unable to see because of a screen. Tomas Holmstrom is one of the top power forwards in the game for getting to the front of the net. He is going to be a big issue for young Mason and the Jackets' defense. Holmstrom played just 53 games this season with nagging injuries. The Jackets need to play physical with him and see if they can get him off his game so Mason can see the shooting lanes.
3. Rostislav Klesla v. Himself
It is imperative for Rusty Klesla to stay healthy throughout the duration of this series. The Jackets defense is a huge weakness for them against Detroit's skilled group of forwards. With Rusty Klesla in the lineup, the Jackets are 18-13-3. With Rusty Klesla in the lineup and Steve Mason as the #1 goaltender, the Jackets are 14-7-2. He makes a huge difference.
4. Detroit Goaltenders v. Red Light Burn
Detroit's goaltenders have not been good this season. Chris Osgood has a 3.09 GAA, his highest regular season total ever. Ty Conklin has a 2.51 with six shutouts, but has lost four of his last five. The Jackets need to get lots of pucks on net and exploit this weakness to have any chance.
Keys to the Series
1. Limit Detroit's shots; throw everything on Osgood
In the six games this season, Detroit had 30 shots or more in every game but one. Meanwhile, the Jackets had no more than 25 shots on goal in any of the six games. Sustained offensive pressure is Columbus's best hope to win the series. The more time spent out of their own zone with their weakness on defense, the better.
2. Shut down Datsyuk and Zetterberg
Easier said than done, no doubt. Datsyuk had a goal and seven assists in five games played against Columbus this year. Zetterberg had three goals and three assists in the six games between the two. In the combined 11 games played against Columbus, the duo combined for 39 shots on goal.
3. Defend home ice
Steve Mason is the kind of goaltender that can steal a road game in the postseason. The Jackets cannot afford to lose on home ice in this series. Their only chance of winning the series would be to go 3-0 at home and hope to steal one on the road. Columbus had the fourth most wins at home in the Western Conference with 25.
4. Play the game that got you here
The Jackets have a tendency to get away from their style of play and let their opponent dictate the game. Mike Babcock is a fantastic coach, but so is Ken Hitchcock. Both guys have styles that work for their team. Detroit can play a transition game like pretty much none other. The Jackets cannot. The Jackets must sustain a good cycle down low and clog up the neutral zone. If they get into a wide open transition game with Detroit, it will be a very short series.
Red Wings in 6. While Jackets' fans view this as a tremendous rivalry, I doubt the same can be said for Detroit fans. Columbus fans are eager to get this matchup, though it is not the best one for them, just for the chance to take down the mighty Red Wings. This will not be the year. Though Mason will probably be spectacular, the Jackets simply do not have the talent level at forward or defense to win a best of seven series.
Thursday April 16, @ DET 7 p.m.
Saturday April 18, @ DET 6 p.m.
Tuesday April 21, @ CBJ 7 p.m.
Thursday April 23, @ CBJ 7 p.m.
Saturday April 25, @ DET 6 p.m.*
Monday April 27, @ CBJ TBD*
Wednesday April 29, @ DET TBD*
*- if necessary
Without another piece to highlight all of the playoff matchups, here are my predictions for the rest of the series:
1E. BOS over 8E. MTL in 5
2E. WSH over 7E. NYR in 6
3E. NJ over 6E. CAR in 7 (look for two or three multi-OT games)
5E. PHI over 4E. PIT in 7
8W. ANA over 1W. SJ in 7
2W DET over 7W. CBJ in 6
3W. VAN over 6W. STL in 5
4W. CHI over 5W. CGY in 4