The Columbus Blue Jackets might not be the frontrunner for the first pick in the 2023 NHL Draft after all.
The Blue Jackets have won two in a row heading into their matchup against the Arizona Coyotes on Sunday night in Tempe, Ariz., lifting them out of the cellar in the NHL standings.
Their latest triumph came on Saturday when Columbus beat the Central Division-leading Dallas Stars 4-1.
By earning two points, the Blue Jackets no longer have the fewest points in the NHL, a distinction now held by the Blackhawks. Columbus has 40 to Chicago’s 39.
The current NHL lottery system gives the team with the worst record a 25.5 percent chance of claiming the No. 1 overall pick. But with a player as talented as Connor Bedard becoming draft-eligible this season, finishing last might not be as bad as it sounds. Bedard has back-to-back 100-goal seasons for Regina of the Western Hockey League.
The Columbus players clearly aren’t striving for last place, however.
Mathieu Olivier, who had a goal and two assists against the Stars for the first multi-point game of his NHL career, said the Blue Jackets have been victimized by bad bounces and ill-timed injuries. He contends that their record isn’t an indication of their talent level.
“We’ve got a ton of stuff to prove,” Olivier said. “Every game’s important for us, even at this point.”
Columbus defenseman Gavin Bayreuther agreed that the Blue Jackets are playing with a chip on their shoulder.
“We understand what it takes to win games, especially against these top teams,” he said. “We’re playing like we’ve got something to prove and I think that’s really important.”
Like his players, Columbus coach Brad Larsen clearly feels like he has nothing to gain by losing games.
“It’s been a challenging year, no question,” Larsen said. “We’ve played some really good hockey teams in the last stretch here, so hopefully we’ll keep it going.”
The Coyotes (47 points) also are in the running for the top pick in the next draft, but they don’t appear to be playing to lose, either.
Arizona rallied from a 5-1 deficit against the Los Angeles Kings on Saturday night and sent the game into overtime before losing 6-5 in a shootout.
“Bad first (period), learned from it. Good response for the next 40 (minutes), and I think we carry some momentum over to (Sunday’s game),” Coyotes forward Christian Fischer said.
Clayton Keller scored two goals for the Coyotes to continue his career-best season. He has 11 points (five goals, six assists) in six games since the All-Star break, giving him 23 goals and 29 assists on the season.
The Coyotes will face a difficult decision on which goalie to start against Columbus.
Karel Vejmelka started against the Kings and gave up five goals on 14 shots in 16 minutes before he was replaced by Connor Ingram, who stopped all 23 shots he faced.
Ingram was coming off a 1-0 win against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday in which he made 47 saves for his first NHL shutout.
The Blue Jackets said they’ll be ready for whichever goalie starts for Arizona.
“We’re playing like we’re pushing for the playoffs,” Bayreuther said. “We have a lot of young guys trying to get better. We have a lot of guys fighting for jobs for next year.”
–Field Level Media