It might sound strange to say it, but basically at the halfway point of the 2016-17 NHL season, the Columbus Blue Jackets are the best team in the league. Such comments immediately cue the “just wait”, “they’re not for real” and other similar comments. And it is fair to say that winning a mid-season President’s trophy does not mean much. But the Blue Jackets deserve a ton of credit for where they are right now atop the NHL and more significantly for more or less assuring that they will be part of the NHL post season when very few people projected that before the season started.
The rapid rise of Columbus has mostly happened out of the Canes’ fans sight. Like the Hurricanes, the Blue Jackets receive an undersized share of national TV exposure, premium outdoor games and general media attention and the NHL schedule monkey kept the 2 teams away from each other for the entirety of the first half of the season.
Timing might actually be perfect for the Hurricanes to start work on the Blue Jackets portion of their schedule. After winning 16 straight in a “no matter what we find a way” run of hockey, the Blue Jackets have very recently returned to Earth. The streak ended at the hands of the Washington Capitals, and the Blue Jackets have a regulation loss and an overtime win since then.
Without underestimating the Blue Jackets or disrespecting what they accomplished, just maybe the Hurricanes are catching them at the right time when they are still a good hockey team but maybe more beatable than just a few weeks ago. Given that the Blue Jackets make up 3 of the Hurricanes next 6 games, that would be significant in collecting wins and pushing up the standings.
From the Hurricanes side, the team has been struggling to tread water since the start of the new year with some combination of wins, a couple bad losses and a couple losses in which arguably the team deserved better. After winning a back and forth affair against the Bruins in overtime on Sunday, the Hurricanes are now 3-4 for January which is good enough to keep them hanging around but obviously not good enough to make up ground in the standings.
‘What I’m watching’ for the Hurricanes versus the Columbus Blue Jackets
1) Pace plus willingness to go to the net
Anyone who has read my recent game recaps knows the roller coaster ride over the past couple weeks. The Canes struggled to get going last Tuesday at home. In both of Thursday (Blues) and Friday’s (Blackhawks) games, the Canes skated and attacked, but for me Friday’s loss looked too much like the “hot goalie” story of old that saw “hot” driven at least partly by the Canes’ willingness to settle for peppering the opposing goalie from a distance without much for screens or traffic around the net. Sunday was a big win that interestingly I thought was led by a yeoman-like work by undersized Sebastian Aho going to the front of the net all night. The Canes need to mix in more ugly goals to go with a decent rate of scoring pretty ones.
2) Matching up against the Blue Jackets
With the Hurricanes desperately needing wins to push up the standings and the Blue Jackets on the schedule 3 times in the next 10 days, I will be watching closely to see how the Hurricanes match up against the Blue Jackets. In recent years, the Blue Jackets played a physical, aggressive and hard working brand of hockey. On nights when the Hurricanes were unable or unwilling to match it, they struggled. But the 2016-17 Hurricanes have a growing ability to play fast and attack. So early in this first of 3 match ups in short order, I will be watching closely to see how the 2 teams stack up against each other.
3) Continuation for Sebastian Aho
In both the game recap from Sunday’s win against the Bruins and that Daily Cup of Joe post on Sebastian Aho for the next morning, I raved about Aho’s commitment to go to the dirty areas in Sunday’s win and what it says about his leadership qualities. In that post I went so far as to declare that a potential watershed game for young Sebastian Aho might have been lost beneath the headlines and goal scoring. Aho is having a solid rookie campaign already, but on Tuesday I will be watching to see if in fact Sunday’s game that saw him excel in an area that the team desperately needed that was outside of his natural skill set could be a launching point for even more from Aho.
4) Noah Hanifin and Zach Werenski
I wrote about this in more detail in today’s daily post about Noah Hanifin, but the series of 3 games in the next 10 days against the Columbus Blue Jackets offers an interesting benchmarking opportunity for Noah Hanifin and Zach Werenski who were 2 of the 3 defensemen selected in the top 10 of the 2015 NHL draft.
The puck drops a little bit after 7pm at PNC Arena.