More observations on teams at the Game 60(-ish) mark...
COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS: How hard has Columbus been hit by injuries this season? Well, through Game 62, 30 skaters and 5 goalies had suited up for the Blue Jackets. In spite of the injuries, Columbus finds themselves In The Curve at Game 60. This is uncharted territory, as historically, their latest date of elimination from playoff contention (per OGA) was 15 February 08. The key to the Jackets' success has been the play of rookie netminder Steve Mason. In spite of battling mono for the better part of January (and the after-effects until late February), Mason won several big games and kept Columbus in most others. Two nights ago, in Edmonton, "Stevie Franchise" tied Ken Dryden's record for most shutouts by a rookie with his league-leading 8th.
The Blue Jackets have needed Mason to be their "Rock of Chickamauga" (take that historical reference, Hitch!), because the combination of injuries and lack of scoring depth has made goals hard to come by. At Game 60, Columbus was averaging 2.68 G/gm, 20th in the NHL. Their Power Play, though still dead last in the league, is currently at 12.9% - a marked improvement over the Jackets' 10.1% at Game 30. To compensate for their scoring deficiencies, Columbus plays solid team defense, allowing opponents just 27.6 shots/gm (3rd) and killing penalties 81.4% of the time (16th).
Barring a late-season collapse (which seems unlikely at this point), Columbus is on track for the first playoff berth in franchise history. How much noise will they make once they get there? If they face Detroit, look for Mason to steal a couple, pushing the series to six games.
NASHVILLE PREDATORS: On 6 January, Nashville was at Tee Time - out of the playoffs, per OGA. Going into the final day of February, the Predators are riding a three-game win streak and are just one point behind a four-team logjam battling for the last two playoff spots. While we're prepared to eat crow, whether or not that will be necessary will depend upon the Preds' ability to sustain this newfound momentum...and as long as they continue to score an NHL-worst 2.30 G/gm, it's not going to happen. It's hard to believe this is the same team that was averaging 3.00 G/gm at Game 20!
Other stats of note...The first goal is critical: When scoring first, the Predators win 74.2% of the time (9th), but when their opponent scores first, Nashville comes back to win just 17.2% (25th). Puck control off the faceoff and team defense have gotten the Preds this far, as their 2.75 GAA (T-9th), 83.8% PK (T-4th) and faceoff wins (53.1% - 3rd) attest.
The rebirth of Steve Sullivan is a welcome sight in Music City, and he seems to have regained his scoring touch of late (fantasy owners take note). Will it be enough to push Nashville through the logjam and into a playoff spot, or is it simply too little, too late? OGA says Preds fans shouldn't buy playoff tickets just yet.
BOSTON BRUINS: Despite a sub-par 4-4-2 record in Games 51-60, Boston still sits regally upon the Eastern Conference throne. At Game 60, the Bruins were in the top ten in SIX of ten stat categories. This team is strong with the puck, scoring 3.27 G/gm (5th) and 22.1% of the time on the Power Play (6th), and perhaps most significantly, winning 61.5% of games in which their opponent scores first (1st in the NHL).
The B's are also tough defensively, leading the league with a 2.18 GAA and killing 83.3% of penalties (6th). Testament to Boston's shut-down ability is their win pct. of .900 when leading after two periods (10th). Surprisingly, the Bruins allow 30.2 shots/gm (17th), but Thomas and Fernandez have proven quite adept at stopping the first shot and controlling the rebounds, so quality scoring chances are rare.
You want scoring depth? Nine Bruins have scored 12 or more goals, and four - Savard, Krejci, Kessel and Ryder - have over 20 (expect Wheeler to join the club soon). That scoring, combined with rock-solid goaltending, has the Bruins poised to play on into June.
Check back tomorrow for more of Big Tex's Game 60(-ish) roundup...
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