The teams look to continue their surprising success as they return from the All-Star break for Tuesday night’s matchup at Nationwide Arena.
It’s been a rarity in recent seasons for one of these clubs, let alone both, to be serious contenders for a spot in the postseason in the final days of January.
Columbus (25-20-6), which has never made the playoffs since joining the league for the 2000-01 season, has 56 points and is tied with Colorado for the final playoff spot in the West. The Blue Jackets are eight wins shy of matching their total from 2006-07.
Phoenix (26-21-2), meanwhile, is two points and two spots behind the Blue Jackets. The Coyotes, who finished last in the conference with 67 points last season, haven’t been to the playoffs since 2001-02.
Each team returns from the break looking for a third straight victory, while the Blue Jackets try to extend their franchise-best home winning streak to seven games. They’ll also look to win their fourth in a row over the Coyotes.
Pascal Leclaire made 30 saves for his NHL-leading eighth shutout in Columbus’ 1-0 victory at Chicago on Thursday. The win closed out the Blue Jackets’ 3-2-0 road trip, their first winning trip since going 2-1-0 from Feb. 27-Mar. 3.
“We didn’t give them a lot of space all night,” said Leclaire, 19-9-3 with a 2.00 goals-against average. “That’s why we’re in the playoff race right now. The doughnut is a bonus.”
Leclaire made 32 saves in Columbus’ 3-0 home win over Phoenix on Oct. 10 and 32 in a 4-3 road victory over the Coyotes on Jan. 17 to open the winning road trip.
All-Star forward Rick Nash gave Columbus the most recent victory in spectacular fashion, outmaneuvering Phoenix defensemen Keith Ballard and Derek Morris before faking out goaltender Mikael Tellqvist to score the winner with 21.5 seconds left.
“It just seemed like the puck was on a string,” Nash said of the highlight-reel goal. “I made a couple of dekes and the puck just stayed with me.”
Nash, who had three goals in the Western Conference’s 8-7 loss in Sunday’s All-Star game, has four goals and two assists in his last three contests versus Phoenix.
The Coyotes will be opening a five-game road trip Tuesday. Phoenix’s success this season in due in large part to its play on the road, where it’s 15-10-0.
“We’re finding ways to win games and get big points,” Coyotes coach Wayne Gretzky said.
Vrbata, who leads the team with 21 goals, tied a career best with four points in his first game back since missing three with a groin injury.
“It felt great because I was out for a week,” said Vrbata, who hasn’t registered a point against Columbus this season. “We had three games in that time, and it was tough to watch. I was just happy to be in there and help the team.”
Ilya Bryzgalov made 29 saves against the Predators as he continued to come up with big performances in what has been a career season. He’s 17-10-2 with a 2.35 GAA since being claimed off waivers from Anaheim in November.
One of his losses, however, came Oct. 5 at Columbus, 4-0.