The Columbus Blue Jackets' strong second-half surge has pushed them in front of a crowded pack in the Western Conference and into excellent position for their first playoff berth in franchise history.
It's only been five years since the St. Louis Blues last reached the postseason, but they may already be en route to following Columbus' charge.
With three remaining games against the red-hot Blue Jackets, St. Louis will need points against its Central Division rivals to get back to the playoffs, but the host Blues will carry an impressive three-game winning streak into Saturday night's opener of the teams' home-and-home series.
A sustained stretch of solid play has Columbus firmly entrenched in sixth place in the West, with the club on the verge of finally advancing to the playoffs in the franchise's eighth season. Coach Ken Hitchcock's team is 7-1-1 in its last nine games and 15-5-2 in the last seven weeks.
| Columbus' Mr. Clutch
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Video: Breaking Down the Game
Photos: vs. Blues (02-18-09)
Video: vs. Blues (02-18-09)
Behind a 33-save shutout from standout rookie Steve Mason, the Blue Jackets (39-28-7) dominated Calgary 5-0 on Thursday night, sending a strong message to a team they could potentially face in the first round of the playoffs.
"We needed to show ourselves we could raise our competitive level," Hitchcock said. "We raised our competitive level and got rewarded for it."
"We're not anywhere yet, all we are is in the hunt," the coach added. "We're not celebrating very long here, we have to move forward and get ready for St. Louis."
Against the Blues, Columbus' top line of Manny Malhotra, Rick Nash and Kristian Huselius will look to build off its productive game Friday. While Malhotra scored the game-winner 3:43 into the game, Nash and Huselius each notched four assists, including two on a pair of Jason Williams power-play goals.
The Blue Jackets went 2-for-5 on the man advantage even though the unit is the worst in the league at 12.9 percent, adding a third goal four seconds after a power play ended.
The Blues (35-30-9) also scored two power-play goals in their 4-2 win over Vancouver on Thursday night, with both coming in the third period to break a 2-all tie. David Perron put them ahead 2:58 into the third.
Even though their 10-4-1 stretch has them on the fringe of the top eight in the West - and the home crowd was chanting "We want playoffs" against the Canucks - St. Louis coach Andy Murray won't talk about the possibility of reaching the postseason for the first time since 2004.
"We just focus on getting the next two points, and if we've got enough at the end, then we'll be playing some hockey," Murray said.
If they keep up their current pace, odds are they will be. Goalie Chris Mason has allowed four total goals during the team's three-game winning streak, which includes a 3-2 win at Calgary and a shutout victory over Los Angeles.
Three of their remaining eight games are against the Blue Jackets, including Saturday's game and Sunday's matchup in Columbus.
Chris Mason had been 10-1-1 with a 1.80 goals-against average in 12 career starts against Columbus until his last meeting with the Blue Jackets, when he gave up four goals on 18 shots before getting pulled after the second period of a 4-3 loss.
That game was his similarly named counterpart's first win versus the Blues after Steve Mason lost two against them earlier this season. He gave up a career-high five goals in a 5-2 loss in his previous visit to St. Louis on Jan. 3.