To kick off the longest road trip of the 2022-23 season, the San Jose Sharks (14-23-9, seventh Pacific) are visiting the Columbus Blue Jackets (13-30-2, eighth Metropolitan) at the Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio.
This is the first meeting this season between San Jose, 28th overall in the league, and Columbus, who are currently on a 3-15-0 skid and became the NHL’s bottom team after a Jan. 19 loss to the Anaheim Ducks.
The Blue Jackets missed the 2022 playoffs and earned the sixth-overall draft selection. The off-season showed promise in free agency, when general manager Jarmo Kekalainen signed defender Erik Gudbranson and star forward Johnny Gaudreau from the Calgary Flames. In order to resign Patrik Laine, however, the team was forced to trade Oliver Bjorkstrand to the Seattle Kraken. Finally, Alexandre Texier left the team for personal reasons.
Gaudreau and Laine, the two biggest Blue Jackets stars since Rick Nash, haven’t found as much chemistry this year as fans had hoped: while Gaudreau has a solid 12 goals and 30 assists over 45 games, Laine’s 12 goals and 11 assists in 30 games leaves something to be desired. This, along with injuries to forward Jakub Voracek and defender Zach Werenski, has led to a weak power play (14.3 percent, 32nd) and 30th place rankings in goals against/60 minutes (3.91) and goals for/60 minutes (2.51).
Meanwhile, the Sharks are on a slide that’s similar to (but not quite as bad as) Columbus, winning just four of the last 15 games — each nestled between two to three losses on each side. Ignoring a huge comeback win against the Dallas Stars on Jan. 18, the two previous Sharks victories came against teams beneath them in the standings. On the bright side, San Jose’s’ 84.2 percent penalty kill percentage is third-best in the league.
On paper, this is the easiest match of the eight-game road trip, so the Sharks should seize the opportunity if they want to make a miraculous run for playoffs.
Will Gaudreau and Laine continue to flounder?
Johnny Hockey has had both good years and bad years, and 42 points in 45 games is a bad year for him, especially after 40 goals and 115 points last year. His even streakier linemate Laine is emulating his first year in Columbus (10 G, 11 A, 45 games) but would probably rather emulate his second year (26 G, 30 A, 56 games) instead.
The Blue Jackets have only won five games this season during which neither Gaudreau nor Laine scored, so keeping them off the sheet could go a long way.
Can San Jose keep the momentum going?
After Dallas scored three goals in the first 26:57 of the last Sharks game, the boys in teal bit back with five consecutive goals from five different players, capped off by an Erik Karlsson game winner and an empty netter from captain Logan Couture.
For lack of a better phrase: I’ll have what she’s having! But maybe this time, don’t go down 3-0 before getting fired up. Bottom line: the sooner the Sharks get serious, the better.
Can the Sharks keep the crowd (and the cannon) quiet?
Many NHL teams have an advantage at home, but the Blue Jackets exemplify that, having found 10 of their 13 wins at Nationwide Arena. Even though 10-15-1 isn’t worlds away from 3-15-1, it feels like the Fifth Line gets closer to hopping onto the ice every time that cannon goes off.
San Jose needs to take a page from Dallas’ book and get a quick early lead, then they need to close that book and open a different one, so as not to lose the game 5-3.
Bold prediction: 3-2 Columbus. Laine scores a hat trick before turning back into a corncob for the rest of the season.