Last year's season series between the Blue Jackets and Oilers was fairly lopsided, with Edmonton winning three of the four games. For whatever reason, the Oilers didn't appear to be a good match-up for Columbus and especially so at Rexall Place, where skilled players like Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall could really get their skating game going.
The Oilers are a year older and a year wiser, and if you can believe it, are more skilled than they were a season ago. Top pick Nail Yakupov made the squad out of the six-day training camp and is currently playing on coach Ralph Kreuger's third line, a switch made prior to yesterday's matinee in Detroit.
It's hard to find a more dynamic top six in the league, and part of the credit goes to Krueger for getting veterans like Shawn Horcoff (Edmonton's captain) and longtime Oiler Ryan Smyth to buy into lesser roles. The road has been paved for the Oilers' bright future, and with Nugent-Hopkins and Sam Gagner holding down the top two center spots, there's a ton of potential with this group.
Columbus has a tall task today when these two clubs meet for the first time in 2013. On one hand, the Blue Jackets have done well in limiting opportunities for opponents thanks to an aggressive checking style and awareness on the back-check; on the other, they've struggled offensively almost from the outset and haven't found a mix of lines that gives Todd Richards some consistent offense.
There are new line combinations in play today for the Blue Jackets, as well: Prospal-Anisimov-Letestu, Calvert-Dubinsky-Foligno, Umberger-Brassard-Dorsett, Gillies-MacKenzie-Boll. Richards used these lines during yesterday's practice and they're expected to at least start today's game in this alignment.
James Wisniewski draws back into the lineup eight days after a scary collision into the end boards. He said he's feeling good, and aside from general hockey soreness, there are no ill effects. David Savard was assigned to Springfield yesterday to relieve some of the logjam on defense.
Now, let's get to my "three keys" to success for the Blue Jackets:
1. Shots, shots, shots: The Blue Jackets have to get in a "shoot first" mentality. They're having a hard time creating offense right now, and one way to attempt to break out of the funk is putting more pucks on the net. In their last game (vs. Calgary on Thursday), they put 12 shots on Leland Irving in the first period didn't approach that total in any of the subsequent periods. It all begins with their forecheck; pucks deep, creating turnovers and then funneling pucks toward the goal.
2. An emotional game: Pretty simple key right here. The Blue Jackets need to come out playing a spirited game today against a team that can bury your mistakes. Edmonton plays a fearless style of hockey and one way to counter that is to wear them down with a high octane, physical game. You look to the Blue Jackets' fourth line -- which has been strong for them in the first 11 games -- to make an impact when they get their opportunities. Hits, fights...whatever it takes.
3. Home ice advantage: This is always a crucial component in the NHL, but even more so in this abbreviated and compacted season. The Blue Jackets have struggled a bit at Nationwide Arena and dropped two home games this week against Calgary and Los Angeles. With two straight home games on tap before embarking on a long road trip next week, this is a prime chance for Columbus to steady itself on home ice and build some momentum.