Two weeks ago, Vancouver Canucks head coach Alain Vigneault stated his team was exactly where he thought it would be, which was in a dogfight for a playoff spot in the National Hockey League’s Western Conference.
The Canucks were stinking it up back then and barely above the playoff bar. Their centre ice position was in a mess and neither Cory Schneider nor Roberto Luongo could find their groove between the pipes.
What a difference a winning week makes. By prevailing in four straight, all in regulation, the Canucks had moved eight points above the playoff bar by Monday morning.
Meanwhile, the Columbus Blue Jackets, their opponent Tuesday at Rogers Arena, were once considered dead meat after winning five of their first 21. They’re now on an 8-1-4 run and in the thick of the playoff race, a rare and pleasant change for them.
The Jackets were tied for ninth in the West before Monday’s action. But a bad week could send them in another downward spiral. They’re only 3-9-1 on the road, were thumped 5-2 Saturday in Nashville — their first regulation loss in 13 outings — and have five of their next six away from home.
It’s tense everywhere in the West, except maybe in Chicago and Anaheim. No one is truly out of it even though it appears Colorado, Calgary and Edmonton are fading. Everyone is fastening their seatbelts with barely a month to go.
“From here to the end, it’s going to be competitive and it’s going to be exciting,” Blue Jackets forward R.J. Umberger predicted Monday following a full team practice at The Rog. “It’s going to be a month of playoff-push hockey and, as a team, we’re really excited for it.”
The Jackets were never a factor last season, got off to a horrid start, coach Scott Arniel was fired and the team was left playing out the string. “No doubt you want to be playing meaningful hockey at this time of year and we haven’t done that the last few seasons,” Umberger said. “So this is a bright spot for us. We had a streak of points in 12 games, which gave us a chance to get back into the mix. I think we’ve found the confidence right now and we’re playing with a lot of passion. Hopefully, we can continue to do that and stay in this race.”
The Canucks did not skate Monday so their players and coaches weren’t available to offer their opinions, leaving the Jackets to do all the talking. Columbus coach Todd Richards, who replaced Arniel on Jan. 9, 2012, feels like he’s been in a stretch run almost since the lockout-truncated season began. He’s not complaining, mind you.
“I think everyone recognizes the shortened season and the emphasis and importance that has been put on every game,” he said.
“Everyone is fighting for points. I don’t mind it because of the importance of every game. It makes it enjoyable to come and work and our players are having fun with it.
“For a good part of the year, we were looking up at everyone and now we’re finally in a position where someone is looking up at us. I think it’s a great position to be in because there is a lot of learning situations that go on. To me, this is one of them for a young team, playing in these big games and in these tense buildings.”
Abrasive Blue Jackets’ winger Jared Boll is in his sixth season in Columbus and been part of just one playoff team, the 2008-09 edition that was swept four straight by Detroit. You can imagine how much he is enjoying being a part of a playoff drive.
“I mean, obviously that’s what you play for, to put yourself in a position to be able to make the playoffs,” he said. “Now we’ve done that and it just makes it fun to come to the rink.”
Boll and his mates are expected to face a Canuck lineup similar to the one that defeated Colorado 3-2 on Sunday. Defenceman Alex Edler will return from his two-game suspension, which likely means Cam Barker will be bumped back to the press box. Up front, it appears defenceman Keith Ballard will remain on left wing on the third line and call-up Andrew Gordon will stay as the fourth-line right-winger.
Look for Schneider to get his fifth straight start in goal.
ICE CHIPS: This is the third and final meeting of the season between the Canucks and Blue Jackets. Columbus has a 2-1 overtime win and the Canucks a 2-1 shootout win, both games in Ohio … Port Moody’s Ryan Johansen, the Jackets’ first pick (fourth overall) in the 2010 entry draft, is stuck on one goal for the season in 24 games despite putting 53 shots on net. He has seven points and is minus-8.