The Columbus Blue Jackets’ struggles this season following their first trip to the NHL playoffs have been well documented.
Fans have seized upon the less-than-stellar play of second-year goalie Steve Mason as the focal point for their frustration. Mason captured NHL Rookie of the Year honors during the Jackets’ playoff run, and his regression has certainly figured mightily in their struggles.
But the poor play of one man, even one as important as the goaltender, doesn’t tell the whole story. In fact, no one in the organization really has the whole story at this point. Otherwise, they would start writing a better ending.
One external factor to the slump that many fans might not be aware of is the unusual and uneven schedule Columbus has found itself stuck with.
Through 54 games this season, the Blue Jackets are 20-25-9, with only 24 of the 54 (44 percent) being played in the friendly confines of Nationwide Arena. In contrast, by this date last year, Columbus had played in only 46 total games with 31 (67 percent) being played at home.
As anyone in the Ohio State statistics department could tell you, those numbers are statistically significant.
“We have been on nothing but one big road trip here,” coach Ken Hitchcock said of his team’s traveling woes. “This whole thing in December and January has been the toughest part.”
The reason the schedule has been so road game intensive in the early going appears to be primarily a scheduling fluke. The reason the first half of the season has been packed with so many more games is a little easier to explain.
The league is taking a 15-day break from Feb. 15 to Mar. 1 for the 2010 Winter Olympic Games, so every four years the league’s scheduling office has to get a little creative.
This isn’t something the league is necessarily thrilled about.
“The benefits of going to the Olympics when you’re in Salt Lake City or Vancouver are way different than if you’re in Japan, Italy or Russia,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said.
Many are concerned about shutting the league down for two weeks while playoff races are starting to heat up. Others are concerned about the competitive advantage that may be given away by certain teams sending as many as 10 of their players to the Olympics while others may send none.
Columbus doesn’t even get the worst of it.
The Vancouver Canucks, whose home city is playing host to this year’s Winter Olympics, will be going on a 14-game road trip in the days leading up to and immediately after the Games. With the two-week layoff, Canuck fans will have gone a total of six weeks without a home game.
The Blue Jackets, while suffering through this quirky schedule thus far, look to benefit in the coming months. They will now play 17 home games out of their remaining 28 contests.
With the Blue Jackets’ playoff hopes in critical condition, Hitchcock and Columbus fans hope that an infusion of home games will be just the thing to pump life back into a struggling franchise.
“Let’s see at the end of the day, when we’re sitting at home in February, March and April, when these teams are on their extended road trips, let’s see where it evens out at the end of the day,” Hitchcock said. “This has been a trying season for everybody, but it’s not over.”