The Blue Jackets will kick off 2015 on the road Saturday night in Glendale against the Arizona Coyotes. Except for their Nov. 29 visit to Nashville, the Blue Jackets next three contests will be the first Western Conference road trip for Columbus since their three-game swing through California in late October.
The Coyotes sit 13th in the Western Conference, but have shown some fight of late, winning three of their past four, including a shootout win over the Anaheim Ducks. It has been a disappointing start to the season for Arizona, but there are signs that their game may be on the up-tick.
The Coyotes are 4-0-1 this season against the Edmonton Oilers, the only team below them in the Western Conference standings. The problem is that they are 10-19-3 against the rest of the NHL, posting the second worst offensive and defensive numbers, again, trailing Edmonton.
Arizona's struggles come with many familiar faces still present from the team’s roster that went to the Conference Final in 2012. Dave Tippett is still behind the bench and still widely considered one of the league’s best coaches. Shane Doan, the team’s captain since 2003, is still leading the charge in the desert, Keith Yandle is still one of the most prized puck-moving defenders in the game, and former Blue Jacket Antoine Vermette currently leads the Coyotes in scoring.
The team's goaltending has been inconsistent, as well, with veteran Mike Smith struggling in 2014-15 with a goals against average of 3.48 and a save percentage of .884 in 23 games. He’s been pulled three times this year and hasn’t played since Dec. 22. Instead of Smith, it has been Devan Dubnyk getting the call between the pipes. Dubnyk has done some solid work to bolster his resume after his time spent in Edmonton, and for the time being, has assumed the role of No. 1 goalie for Arizona.
The Blue Jackets defeated the Coyotes in their regular season home finale on Apr. 8, 2014, pushing them closer to clinching a playoff berth. The 4-3 overtime victory on Ryan Johansen’s 32nd goal of the season put the Jackets within two points of a playoff spot, a job they would finish off in Dallas the following night.
The Blue Jackets held a 3-2 lead late in the third period, but the Coyotes were able to force overtime when Oliver Ekman-Larsson’s wrister from the left point beat Bobrovsky over the glove with 15 seconds remaining. The Jackets responded at 3:33 of overtime when James Wisniewski fed Johansen streaking through the neutral zone behind the defense. Johansen’s wrister in stride beat goaltender Thomas Greiss and gave Columbus the win.
Keith Yandle is putting together another fine offensive season for the Coyotes. As surprising as it was the Jack Johnson was not included on the U.S. Olympic roster last year, Yandle’s omission may have been a bigger shock. Yandle has racked up more points than any other American defenseman since the Vancouver Olympic games and has amassed 250 points since the start of the 2009-10 season. He’s a player that Coyotes general manager Don Maloney would like to keep in the fold, and if Yandle keeps producing as he has, he can be key piece for the Coyotes moving forward. He logs big minutes in all situations and can really shoot the puck.
With nine points in his last nine games and a new six-year contract to boot, it’s hard to say anyone is having a better start to 2015 than Nick Foligno. The Blue Jackets locked up Foligno with a new deal on New Year's Eve, after which he promptly went out and recorded another point, an assist on an empty-net goal by Ryan Johansen. During December, Foligno scored his 100th NHL goal, played his 500th NHL game, and made Columbus his home for the foreseeable future. Without question, the streaking Blue Jackets’ offense is humming around Foligno right now.
Surprise: special teams!
Despite their struggles, the Coyotes power play has functioned fairly well and ranks 12th in the NHL, far better than their 28th-ranked penalty kill. That’s not overly surprising from a team with Yandle and Doan, not to mention Vermette’s five power play goals. The Blue Jackets penalty kill was outstanding in late December, going 24 straight penalty kills without surrendering a goal before Zach Parise’s power play tally on New Year's Eve for Minnesota. That streak pulled Columbus out of the depths of the PK ranks and up to 19th in the league. Both teams have struggled at 5-on-5 with the Blue Jackets -26 goal differential only slightly better than Arizona’s -27. Those figures don’t reflect the Jackets’ December surge, but they are still best advised not to let the Coyotes’ off the even-strength hook.