As early as mid-January, it seemed as though the Eastern Conference playoff picture was already complete given the discrepancy between the top eight and bottom eight teams. At the time, it was the Boston Bruins in the second wild card spot and the Detroit Red Wings as the first team out, but separated by .157 percentage points. Over the past two months, the Bruins have continued at the same clip but the Washington Capitals have fallen off, now sitting soundly in the second wild card spot with a .617 points percentage. On the other side of the midpoint, the Columbus Blue Jackets have emerged as the best of the rest and are sticking around the fringes of the East playoff picture with a .517 points percentage. Separated by .100 and with their final head-to-head match-up of the season approaching on Thursday, the question must be asked: can the Blue Jackets pull off the unthinkable and catch the Capitals, shaking up a conference playoff group that looked set in stone?
In terms of absolute points, Columbus sits 13 points back of Washington. However, they do hold a game in hand. Regardless, its still a significant gap between the teams with just over a quarter of the season remaining. The Blue Jackets do have an edge when it comes to remaining schedule. Not only do they have an extra game on Washington, but Columbus also has an easier slate with 11 games against playoff teams – less than half of their remaining contests. In contrast, the Capitals will face 12 playoff teams in their remaining 22 games. It is isn’t a major advantage for the Jackets, but could make all the difference in a tight race.
Statistically, the teams are not as different as it may seem. At first glance, the Capitals +28 goal differential to the Blue Jackets’ -25 looks like two teams in entirely different stratospheres. However, Columbus’ struggles are due mainly to goaltending, as Elvis Merzlikins and Joonas Korpisalo are both enduring difficult seasons and have their team ranked 30th in goals against per game. Meanwhile, Washington is ranked eighth in the same category. However, with improved play in net down the stretch, the Blue Jackets would become quite comparable to the Capitals. In terms of scoring, Washington is ranked ninth in goals for per game while Columbus is ranked 12th, separated by just 0.05. On the power play, both clubs have struggled, ranked 23rd and 24th respectively and again separated by just a marginal amount of 0.6%. On the penalty kill, the Capitals are 12th and the Jackets are 17th, but only 1.3% apart. In fact, outside of goals against the only area in which Washington is substantially outperforming Columbus is in physicality – 12th vs. 28th.
As for roster management, how the Blue Jackets consider their own playoff pursuit and approach the deadline could make all the difference. Even if the team decides to sell impending free agents like Korpisalo and Max Domi, they could still improve, especially considering the lacking play from both. With player-for-player trades or additional deals, the Blue Jackets could bring in another goaltender and add forward depth to replace Domi and help manage the injured Boone Jenner or Alexandre Texier; they wouldn’t necessarily have to be “buyers” if they target term players. Such an approach to the deadline could improve the roster and tighten the playoff race. If instead they move their rentals and opt to stick with their current roster, it would be to the advantage of the Capitals. Given their salary cap situation, Washington either has to be conservative at the deadline or get creative to make a big splash. Their overall status in the playoff picture suggests the former, but a big move from Columbus would shift the status quo.
It’s an uphill battle for Columbus and would require further decline from Washington, but the scenario is far more likely than it was a couple months ago. How might it all shake out in another month or so? Can the Blue Jackets catch the Capitals for the final wild card spot in the East?