It wasn't supposed to be like this, but here we are again
The Blue Jackets play the Montreal Canadiens Thursday, March 28, at Nationwide Arena. It could be the most important game of the season.
At least the team's most important game since playing the Habs in Montreal on Feb. 19. And before that, since a Jan. 18 tilt vs. Montreal here in Columbus.
I was at that January game. A friend from Denmark was visiting and I thought, “What a great opportunity to put Oliver Bjorkstrand, one of only a handful of Danish players in the NHL, on display for a countryman!” Bjork scored a third period goal, but, sadly, it was the only one the Jackets would get past goaltender Carey Price in a 1-4 loss. The Jackets fell to the Canadiens in that February game at the Bell Centre, as well, by a 2-3 count.
So things don't set up that great for the good guys Thursday.
That these games against the Canadiens have become of uber-critical importance wasn't supposed to be. Adding forwards Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel, as well as defenseman Adam McQuaid and goalie Keith Kinkaid, at the NHL trade deadline in late January gave the team what many believed to be its best-ever lineup. Facing the prospect of losing free agents Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen bet on his guys, added firepower and sent them on what was supposed to be a strong finish.
We all know how that has gone.
And so here we are, the Jackets basically in a two-team race for the eighth and final playoff spot with… the Montreal Canadiens. (There are other mathematical possibilities, but they seem highly unlikely.) These three games against the Habs loom large, indeed, although they won't necessarily be what decide the two teams' mutual fate. But they're obviously a major factor. (Whether the supposed better end of that fate, a likely first-round dispatch courtesy the juggernaut Tampa Bay Lightning, is actually preferable depends on your perspective.)
This isn't the first time the CBJ have gone down to the wire hoping to clinch a playoff spot. I remember in 2013, watching the Jackets, needing a win over Nashville and a Colorado victory over Minnesota on the season's last day to clinch. A 3-1 Jackets win wasn't all those in attendance at Nationwide got that night, as the fans were treated to the end of the Wild-Avalanche game on the big screen. Alas, Minnesota won, and the Jackets were out.
It's happened since, too many times. Even the past couple of seasons, when the Jackets have been a vastly improved squad, nothing's been secure until the season's final week or so. This year could find the Jackets in another win-and-get-help-on-the-last-day situation, as both the CBJ and Habs have a game on April 6. But, one game at a time, as they say. Especially if it's the most important one.