The Blue Jackets make their only trip this season to the State of Hockey on Monday when they face the Minnesota Wild at Xcel Energy Center. The Blue Jackets arrive after a feel-good win in Boston against a scrappy Bruins team that broke their four-game losing streak. The Wild have struggled mightily of late but got back on track with back-to-back wins last week.
The Wild are coming off wins over the Buffalo Sabres and Arizona Coyotes, both teams below a Wild team that sits 22nd in the NHL, but 12th out of 14 teams in the Western Conference. Their 7-0 win over the Sabres was certainly an ego boost for Minnesota, but did little to erase the 7-2 and 7-1 losses earlier in the month to Pittsburgh and Dallas, respectively. A team that still posts solid possession numbers like they did when they last met the Blue Jackets is still struggling to find ways to win and much because of their goaltending, so they went external to find a fix.
The Wild traded to bring in Devan Dubnyk from Arizona, and he's the fourth different goaltender used by the Wild this season with Darcy Kuemper and Niklas Backstrom struggling mightily. Josh Harding, last year’s starter, missed time in 2013-14 with issues stemming from multiple sclerosis and then was waived by the team to AHL Iowa. So now it’s Dubnyk’s turn, and he’s done a solid job so far going 2-0-0 with a .977 save percentage. It’s been a renaissance season for Dubnyk between Arizona and now Minnesota, reestablishing himself as an NHL option between the pipes after rough times in Edmonton the last four years.
If the Wild could solve their goaltending issues, the rest of the team is built for success. Jason Pominville and Zach Parise lead the team in scoring with 36 and 33 points, respectively. Jason Zucker (16-5-21) and Nino Niederreiter (14-7-21) are in the midst of breakout offensive seasons. The blue line is young and deep, and anchored by perennial Norris Trophy candidate Ryan Suter.
The Blue Jackets capped off their terrific December with a 3-1 win over the Wild on New Year's Eve. The Wild got on the board first with Zach Parise’s power play goal late in the first period, but the Jackets responded with Kevin Connauton’s fifth goal of the season in the final minute of the second, a quick wrister from the half-wall that beat Kuemper. The Blue Jackets defense was not done yet, with David Savard’s power play goal at 5:57 of the third period holding up as the eventual game-winner.
Ryan Johansen scored into an empty net in the final minute of regulation, ending an 11-game scoring drought. He has scored seven more goals in eight games since.
Matt Calvert has been a different player over the last three games, and Todd Richards has noticed. According to Richards, when Calvert is moving his feet and getting up the ice, he’s a much more impactful player. Calvert has certainly done that in recent games, getting in on the forecheck, causing turnovers, and being in the right place in front of the net for loose pucks. Calvert scored two goals in Boston, the game-winner when he pounced on a loose puck that had leaked behind Tuukka Rask and then an empty-netter to seal the victory just minutes later. Beyond Calvert’s two goals he has seven shots in three games and seems to be finding the confidence he had late last season and then in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Can it be anyone other than Ryan Johansen, who is in the midst of the longest points streak in the NHL this season and the longest in Blue Jackets history? Johansen has eight goals and eight assists in 13 games for Columbus, and is coming off a two-point performance in the Jackets’ recent 3-1 win over Boston. It was the third multi-point effort during the streak for Johansen. Johansen has been working in harmony with line mate Nick Foligno, as has been the case for much of the season. Earlier in the streak, when Foligno had the hot scoring stick, it was Johansen playing the role of set-up man. Now, it's Johansen finding hte back of the net with regularity, up to 17 goals on the year.
Get it to the net
The Blue Jackets have been much improved in offensive production over the last two games, firing 30 shots in their game in Boston a night after unloading 36 shots on the New York Rangers. That was a far better than their performances against the Maple Leafs, Islanders, and Canadiens when they failed to exceed 20 shots. Against a Maple Leafs team that has struggled mightily with possession, and then against an Islanders team starting a struggling Chad Johnson (and even a Coyotes squad starting Mike Smith in the worst season of his career), the Jackets failed to drive the offense. In Minnesota, they face a great possession team with huge goaltending question marks. An effort like Saturday night can get them a win. An effort like last Wednesday would be another lost opportunity.