Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, Nationwide Arena
Kids Takeover Day
TV: Bally Sports Ohio, ESPN+ (outer markets)
Radio: Blue Jackets radio network (97.1 The Fan flagship station)
As Brad Larsen looked down his bench as Friday’s game against Ottawa went into overtime, the Blue Jacketes head coach probably had to start doing some mental math.
Not present was Patrik Laine, who leads the team with seven game-winning goals including three OT winners, tied for third in the NHL. Also gone were his top offensive defensemen, Zach Werenski and Adam Boqvist, as well as captain Boone Jenner and forwards Alexandre Texier and Yegor Chinakhov, two players who could be dangerous in 3-on-3 and shootout settings.
Yes, the injury bug has hit the Jackets hard, and with the season coming to a close, there’s no rush to push players to take the ice when they’re not 100 percent. But that has left a team that entered the season as the NHL’s youngest squad even greener down the stretch.
“We were the youngest going into the year, so start pulling some older guys out, we’re definitely on the younger side for sure,” Larsen said.
That flip side of that? Some Blue Jackets are getting opportunities they probably wouldn’t have expected at times. That includes Nick Blankenburg being the first CBJ defenseman on the ice for overtime despite it being just his fifth NHL game, and 2021 first-round picks Kent Johnson and Cole Sillinger playing on a line together for the first time.
“That was actually the first time I got to play with him,” Sillinger said after a game in which the two combined for the assists on Jack Roslovic‘s power-play goal in the Jackets’ 2-1 shootout loss. “In the World Juniors camp in the summer (with Team Canada), I was always against him, which was not good, not fun. He’s obviously a great player and we’re going to have a lot of chemistry.”
Opportunities abound, and with four games left in a season, there will be some tests along the way (and we don’t mean the exams Blankenburg must finish this week to earn his degree from the University of Michigan).
The Blue Jackets finish with today’s game against Edmonton in Nationwide Arena, a home-and-home with Tampa Bay, and a season-finale trip to Pittsburgh. That means the CBJ youngsters will get to face such names as Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point and Victor Hedman in the next week, not to mention two teams that have won back-to-back Stanley Cups in the past five years.
“They’re going to go live it,” Larsen said of the challenge facing his young players. “It’s going to be trial by fire here, and you’re going to have to jump in with both feet. The pace of the game is going to be faster, the execution. You’re going to see a higher level of competition here. I’m very curious to watch them.
“First of all, your job is to try to help them and put them in a position to succeed. If it’s too much, then you pull back, but I have no problem seeing them struggle, either. Maybe they’ll thrive. Who knows? We’ve had a young kid with Silly here all year, and there’s been different situations where I’ve pulled him back and then added because he’s earned it. You see we have a lot of guys out, so someone is going to take the minutes.”
The story in Edmonton is much the same as it has been in past years. The Oilers have two superstars in McDavid and Draisaitl, but will that be enough for the two to finally win a playoff series for the first time since they entered the NHL?
The answer to that will come quickly, but the team’s end-of-season form is encouraging. The Oilers are 16-3-2 in their last 21 games, outscoring teams by an average final of 4.24-2.67 in that span. That includes a four-game winning streak with a combined winning margin of 19-5, all against teams either in a playoff position or battling to get into the postseason in Nashville, Vegas, Dallas and Colorado.
On the whole, Edmonton has ridden its stars to seventh in the NHL in scoring with 3.47 goals per game, while the power play is fourth at 25.6 percent. Defensively, time will tell whether the recent strong play will hold up, as the team is 18th in the NHL with 3.06 goals allowed per game and 18th in PK at 79.3 percent.
There’s no better duo than McDavid and Draisaitl in the league when it comes to offense, something we’ve been able to say for a few years now. McDavid is not only one of the game’s premier playmakers – his 73 assists are third in the NHL – but one of its best goal scorers, with speed and a lethal ability to finish. On the season, he has 43 goals to place seventh in the league, and his 116 points lead the NHL.
Draisaitl, meanwhile, has put up an absurd 23 power-play goals, good for second in the league, and his 54 tallies overall are second in the NHL behind just Auston Matthews. The German center also has 53 assists on the year to give him 107 points, fourth in the league.
Zach Hyman is next up with a 25-26-51 line in his first season with the Oilers, while Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has an 11-37-48 line in 59 games. Evander Kane has been quite a useful acquisition, posting 20 goals and 36 points in 39 games, while Kailer Yamamoto has 19 tallies as well. Evan Bouchard (11-30-41) leads the scoring from the blue line.
Ultimately, the key for Edmonton might be what happens between the pipes, as the team seems prepared to again ride the duo of veterans Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen into the postseason. Smith has been getting the bulk of the starts of late, and the 39-year-old is 15-9-2 with a 2.88 GAA and .913 save percentage in 27 games. Koskinen has numbers of 25-11-4/3.09/.902 in 42 games.