The Columbus Blue Jackets return to the ice for the first time in nearly five months this weekend as a part of the NHL's 24-team playoff.
Last night, the Blue Jackets beat the Boston Bruins 4-1 in an exhibition game to give them some momentum as they head into the truncated finish to their season.
The NHL is returning to play with weekend with 24 teams split into two bubble cities for a two-month stretch that will end with one team winning the Stanley Cup.
The Blue Jackets begin a best of five games qualifying series with the Toronto Maple Leafs on Sunday at 8 p.m. The winners of the qualifying round series will then take on one of the four highest-seeded teams in each conference.
Columbus is among the 12 teams in the Toronto bubble, while the 12 other teams are competing in Edmonton.
Aaron Portzline covers the Blue Jackets for The Athletic says last night’s win could be a good sign.
“They looked really, really good. The big thing for them is going to be how well they can defend, because they’re playing a team this year in the qualifying round, best of 5, in the Toronto Maple Leafs who are just as offensively gifted as the team that they swept in the first round of the playoffs last year - Tampa Bay,” he says.
The mid-season pandemic pause in an odd way may have worked in the Jackets' favor.
“There’s no question that the Blue Jackets benefit from the pause as much as any team in the league,” Portzline says. “They were more injured than any team in the league, and it wasn’t just depth players and guys that round out the roster. It was the top players on the team.”
In the delayed post-season, they have almost every single one of those players back.
“Now they feel like they can compete on an equal level as a lot of these teams still remaining,” Portzline says.
But no matter what happens in the post-season, Portzline says the Blue Jackets have already exceeded the low expectations many had after the team lost two star players in the offseason.
“For large stretches of this year, they delivered and I don’t think they think they’re done yet. They feel very good about themselves playing Toronto. I think there are lots of people across the hockey world who don’t think this is going to be an easy qualifying matchup for Toronto at all.”