Columbus Blue Jackets: the Improbable Quest for the Playoffs

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Columbus Blue Jackets:  the Improbable Quest for the Playoffs
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Just when it appeared that the Columbus Blue Jackets were playing themselves out of any playoff possibilities and into another NHL lottery countdown, the Blue Jackets reeled off an impressive 11-3-3 streak. 

However, just as soon as the Blue Jackets were back in the playoff hunt, they continued their schizophrenic ways with a disastrous 0-3-3 meltdown and now find themselves needing an improbable finish to make the eighth and final Western Conference playoff spot.

If "it starts now"—referencing the T-shirts issued by former Blue Jackets head coach Ken Hitchcock as a means of inspiring the team back to its winning ways in the midst of a 3-14-7 collapse, last season—it will have to start tonight against the Los Angeles Kings who, after puzzling the hockey world with their struggles, have rebounded and have become one of the hottest teams in the NHL over the second half of the season.

Add to that the Blue Jackets' return to a fragile psyche, most recently the result of blowing a 3-1 lead and a 3-0 lead to the previously struggling St. Louis Blues, only to lose both games in a shootout and in overtime, consecutively, and you have an even more insurmountable task.

If the Blue Jackets don't make an improbable run at the postseason, it won't be for the lack of faith and dogged determination of their rookie head coach, Scott Arniel. 

"As much as everybody looks at the gloom and doom we are just looking to get that first win here tonight and let things happen from there," said Arniel, "We can't dwell on the past. As much as people speculate or want to think we are done, that we aren't going to make it, we still have 16 games to play."

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"We've seen it done in this league in other years and we've got a bunch of games (nine) at home and six against the East. We've still got opportunities to move forward."  

While his comments may be either delusional or overly optimistic, it comes down to this: What's he supposed to say?

If he states that it's over, he's essentially raised the white flag and that would have a devastating effect on both the team and at the gate, as their fans would opt to forego attending the games for the more pleasant weather that should arrive.  And for a team who's already experienced a 25 percent drop in full-season equivalents (FSEs), such negative statements could be fiscally disastrous.

While the quest for the playoffs is not impossible, it is highly improbable. 

Here's why:

If you look at the Los Angeles Kings, who currently occupy the eighth position in the Western Conference standings, and project their total points (79) over the course of an 82-game schedule, it projects to 97 points.  However, even if you project the Calgary Flames current point totals (81) over an 82-game season, it would project to 95 points.

This, however, is using a straight-line projection of accumulating points/games played over the remaining 12-15 games of the season.  And when you look at the teams who occupy the fourth-eighth positions in the Western Conference standings, most have done so via phenomenal second half surges, particularly during their last 20 games.  While wins and losses do even out, teams with the talent level of these front-runners are merely hitting their stride.

John Grieshop/Getty Images

So what record or accumulated point totals will it take for the Blue Jackets to nab the eighth and final position?  With 71 points through 67 games, in order to attain 95 points, it will require a record of 12-3-0 over their last 16 games.  But if the teams above them continue to surge, 96 or 97 points is a safer assumption.  Using 96 points as a barometer, it would require a finishing record of 12-2-1 and a 13-2-0 run to attain 97 points.

What complicates their possibilities even more is their current position in the Western Conference standings—the 12th position, tied with the St. Louis Blues.  Add to that, the Blue Jackets would have to climb over three other Western Conference rivals, all of whom are in closer striking distance of the eighth and final spot.  In short, it will require "The Perfect Storm" to simultaneously rise at a meteoric rate while four teams descend at an equally meteoric plummet. 

While teams eliminating each other is a distinct possibility, those teams are only 1-2 points out of the last playoff spot—the Blue Jackets are currently eight points away from the eighth position.  

While some would point to the Blue Jackets impressive 14-6-0 start to the season, keep in mind that the run was performed during the October–Mid-November time frame.  While a fast start will never hurt you, there is a great difference between getting off to a great start and fighting for playoff survival.  And that's what the majority of their upcoming opponents are doing—fighting for their playoff lives.

Of their remaining 15 games, 12 are against teams who are either securely positioned in the playoffs, in the eighth position in their respective conferences, or are extremely close to the last available playoff spot.  In other words, very few remaining opponents on the Blue Jackets schedule are merely playing out the string of regular season games.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

But what may been the nail in the proverbial coffin for the Blue Jackets playoff chances may be the uncertain state of their goaltending.  Steve Mason was headed towards another horrid season, with a sub-.900 save% and one of the highest goals-against averages (GAAs) in the NHL.  Mason, however, rebounded during February to post an impressive 7-1-0 record with an equally impressive .942 save%. 

But Mason's March has been anything but a march, posting an 0-2-2 record with a GAA of 3.44 and a save% of .884, and those numbers were buoyed by giving up one regulation goal on 25 saves (26 total shot on goal) on March 1st against the Vancouver Canucks.  

Backup netminder Mathieu Garon has struggled as well, posting a GAA of 2.65 and a Save of .909.  Garon's numbers were also bolstered by stopping all 23 shots faced in a relief role (of Mason) against the Edmonton Oilers.

While their head coach, a former NHL player, and many of their veterans have seen, countless times, teams overcome an eight-point deficit, those heroic feats were accomplished in a much weaker and less powerfully balanced Western Conference, not to mention performing those feats while overtaking 1-2 teams above them, not 4-5.  And these teams didn't accomplish the feat with an unsettled goaltending situation. 

Sportsclubstats.com, who utilize statistical models to scientifically calculate each team's chances of making the Stanley Cup playoffs.  The Blue Jackets chance to make the playoffs currently stands at 3.62 percent.  If you calculate the odds of that occurring, the odds would be 27.5 to one.

So, while possible, their chances are downright improbable.

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