The Panthers will head to Columbus this evening to face off against the Blue Jackets, who have turned their season around by winning 13 of their last 20 games, including an eight-game win streak in January. Much like the Panthers, the Blue Jackets have been a club that's lived in the basement of its division for most of its existence. However, unlike the Panthers, the Blue Jackets have seen many of their draft picks blossom into very solid NHLers, and many of their free agency signings in the past few seasons have begun to pay dividends. Add in a Vezina quality goalie in Sergei Bobrovsky and you can see why the Jackets are no longer a joke.
Meanwhile, the Panthers can't seem to find any consistency and have struggled so badly on special teams that now the PK is starting to falter again. The goaltending hasn't been there lately, but neither has the defense. The team is full of experienced players who have zero confidence and are being scratched as a result, and young players who are being asked to do more than they're probably ready for at this point. The veterans are coasting at times, and the coaching staff is in the same conundrum as the previous group: How do you get blood, sweat and tears out of a bunch of stones?
The Cats are going to have to accept their fate pretty soon if positive results don't come from hard work, and neither of those things are present lately. If the guys on the ice can't band together and hold each other accountable, then everyone should come to the realization that the only thing they'll be swinging soon is a low wedge out of the rough.
Enjoy the LBC GameThread as always, and check out the lyrical stylings of The Cannon for some Jackets love.
Players to Watch
Nick Bjugstad - As scathing of a review as we armchair coaches can give for many players on the Panthers, Bjugstad is one of the true bright spots on the club. Almost every shift he's busting his tail playing two-way hockey and he's one of the few that's able to finish the chances he gets, even when it looks like there's no way he could score. He's turning into one of the top players on the Cats and he's just in his NHL infancy. Bjugstad is one pick that Dale Tallon and company hit a home run with.
Nathan Horton - Horton signed with the Blue Jackets in the offseason and didn't play his first game until January 2 as he was recovering from shoulder surgery. Since then, he's scored seven points in fourteen games and gives Columbus another top scoring winger while Marian Gaborik is out with injury. The Jackets took a chance on Horton, who as Panthers fans know can be a lackadaisical player, but so far he's been competing and playing well. Columbus has a much deeper lineup with him skating, and when Gaborik eventually returns the team will be quite loaded at wing.
Ed Jovanovski - Jovo's play hasn't been amazing, and it hasn't been terrible. What we can't see, but would love to, is his leadership in the locker room. For a team that's just coasting at times and going through the motions, it's a curious thing to wonder what's said by Jovo, who wears the C for the Panthers. Are guys being held accountable by players like Jovo, being called out and talked to aside from the group? If so, great, and it's a shame it's not being heard, but if not, it sounds like there needs to be some adjustments at the leadership level as well as everywhere else in the lineup.
Ryan Johansen - Drafted fourth overall by Columbus in 2010, many felt the team rushed him into the NHL before he was ready, playing in 67 games during the 2011-2012 season. With only 33 points in 107 games in his first two seasons, Johansen was starting to make some wonder if he was the right choice in the draft. However, he's destroyed those doubts this season, leading the team in scoring with 40 points in 54 games and living up to his potential. He's just one of several top young players leading the Jackets out of the perennial basement finish, and he'll be ready to show the Panthers some of his skill set tonight.