DETROIT – In an anything-can-happen lockout-shortened season, even the Columbus Blue Jackets are thinking about a possible postseason appearance.
After earning their first season-series victory over the Detroit Red Wings in franchise history, visiting Columbus seeks a fifth consecutive win in the conclusion of a home-and-home set Sunday night.
Not much was expected in 2013 from a Columbus team that has made just one playoff appearance in its 11-season existence and traded disgruntled franchise cornerstone Rick Nash to the New York Rangers prior to the lockout.
After earning just 12 points in their first 19 games, the Blue Jackets (9-12-4) have won four straight and earned points in each of their last six after Saturday’s 3-0 win over Detroit.
Given the bunched-up Western Conference standings, a playoff appearance certainly is attainable if coach Todd Richards’ team can stay hot through the second half of the season.
“You can sense it in the locker room,” Richards said. “Guys are sitting up taller in their stalls, their heads are high, and they should be. To win four in a row and have six (straight) games getting points, that’s not easy to do at this level.
“But we still have a long way to go.”
Columbus, which received goals from Cam Atkinson, Nick Foligno and Jack Johnson on Saturday, improved to 3-0-1 versus Detroit this season and is on the verge of its first five-game winning streak since Nov. 17-24, 2010.
“We’ve played them four times and found a way to get points in every game,” Richards said. “It’s very satisfying in how we played, but we’re going to have to move on really quickly, too. It’s tough to win back-to-back games.”
The Blue Jackets are just 1-4-0 in the second half of such situations, and Richards doesn’t expect things to get any easier in Sunday’s rematch.
“We’re playing in their building and they’re going to be a very motivated group,” Richards said. “They’ve probably seen our best in all of these games.”
The Red Wings (12-9-4) had gone 5-1-1 in their previous seven before Saturday’s defeat and had allowed more than two goals only once during that stretch.
Coach Mike Babcock hopes his team is more prepared Sunday after being shut out for the first time since a season-opening 6-0 loss at St. Louis on Jan. 19.
“Was that mental prep? Maybe the coach wasn’t getting his message across? Did we practice too hard yesterday?” Babcock said. “I don’t know a lot of the answers, but the bottom line is we weren’t mentally prepared to play hard enough and long enough to have success.”
Detroit was doomed by turnovers, which Pavel Datsyuk said need to be minimized in this contest.
“All their three goals were kind of gifts,” Datsyuk said. “They really capitalized on it. Sometimes you make mistakes but today we did a little too many.”
Jimmy Howard will be back in net after Jonas Gustavsson made 21 saves Saturday. Howard is 4-1-1 with a 1.15 goals-against average over his last six starts, but he’s 1-2-0 with a 3.25 GAA this season versus Columbus.
Sergei Bobrovsky made 30 saves for his first career shutout Saturday, and Steve Mason, who stopped 32 shots in a 4-2 win over the Red Wings on Feb. 2, could be in net to conclude this home-and-home set.
Blue Jackets center Artem Anisimov – second on the team with six goals – was a late scratch with a lower-body injury Saturday, and Richards said he won’t make the trip to Detroit.
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