As the NHL configured the tightly compressed schedule in the aftermath of the latest lockout incarnation, the pundits almost universally decreed that the Stanley Cup Final would pit the New York Rangers and Los Angeles Kings. While a smattering of votes for Chicago and Pittsburgh could be found, the consensus was so profound that an unschooled observer might readily have concluded that the game was rigged and the “season” simply a formality. Those same sages displayed similar — if not greater — agreement on the fact that the Columbus Blue Jackets would finish 15th in the West, and likely 30th in the NHL . . .for a second consecutive year.
Fortunately, NHL results are not premised upon predictions, analysis nor conjecture. While the Kings are solidly in the playoffs, they have been solidly outdone by the Chicago Blackhawks, and anyone proclaiming the defending champs as the favorite has likely been visiting independent pharmaceutical distributors. The Rangers are in a battle for their playoff lives. The Blueshirts –aka the Columbus Alumni Association — have 3 fewer points and 7 fewer goals than the Blue Jackets (though with two games in hand), and played lethargically in their last loss to Philadelphia. In the meantime, those star-crossed Blue Jackets have taken the Rangers and Flyers castoffs, combined them with some young prospects, and produced a club that is playing fast, solid, skilled hockey. With Wednesday night’s 3-2 victory over Anaheim, the Blue Jackets climbed past the Detroit Red Wings (3 – 2 losers in Calgary) and hold the eighth and final playoff slot in their farewell tour in the Western Conference.
Success Beyond The Numbers
When a team is on a run — positive or negative — there is a tendency to focus on the number in an effort to determine causation. Sure, the numbers are important, but sometimes studying individual trees can prevent you from seeing the beauty of the forest. For the Blue Jackets, the numbers are impressive, to be sure. Since March 1, the club is 16-4-4, serving to demonstrate that this is not a mere fluke or a lucky streak. As the PGA Tour would say — “These Guys are Good”.
For Blue Jackets fans, however, the experience of the last seven weeks transcends numbers. The Blue Jackets are playing a game that has not previously been observed on the ice of Nationwide Arena — let alone on the road. On the ice, it is a game that combines speed, skill, a tenacious forecheck and responsible defense. It is a three zone, sixty minute game that is exciting, entertaining . . . and successful. More impressive, however, is the individual and collective mental and emotional dynamic that began to emerge in February, and has blossomed to epic proportions. Where teams in prior years under other regimes were frequently accused of lackluster effort and energy, such has not been the case with this club — even when wins were scarce. Where prior clubs were exquisitely fragile — prone to deflation at the least adversity — this club appears to thrive on pressure and peril, with a different hero each evening. Six different players have scored the game winning goal in the last six victories, and the team has scored three or more goals in each of the last five games.
The Blue Jackets as Road Warriors
When those NHL schedulers cobbled together the compacted schedule, they deviously provided Columbus with a year end six-game road trip, spanning three time zones and including a stretch of five games in seven days. While they graciously allowed Columbus to end the season at home, they also likely figured these games would be meaningless to the Blue Jackets. Not so, and in fact the first three games of the road trip perfectly illustrate the transformation this club has undergone.
As the Blue Jackets boarded the plane for Minnesota at the beginning of the trip, they had a road record of 5-11-2. Engaged in an elbowing fight with Dallas and Phoenix to catch Detroit in the
playoff standings, most dismissed the club’s chances to succeed over an arduous road expedition. Again, that’s why they play the games — because expectations don’t always become reality. Against the Wild, the club appeared poised to card a regulation 2-1 victory, when a late penalty gave the Wild a power play, and Pominville scored the equalizer with just 3:15 left in the game. While this would have represented a major momentum shift for prior clubs, this incarnation of the Blue Jackets took it in stride. They managed the game through the balance of regulation and overtime, and dispatched the home team in two shootout rounds, converting both of their chances, while Bobrovsky stymied both Wild shots.
In Colorado — a notorious black hole for Columbus — an eerily similar scenario played out. Tied at two, another late penalty put the Avalanche on the power play, and they took the lead with just 2:02 left. Problem? Naaaah! Just 38 seconds later, young Ryan Johansen feathered a long saucer pass to a streaking R.J. Umberger, who just nestled the puck through the five hole to send the game to OT. Maintaining a sense for the dramatic, Nick Foligno blistered the twine with a laser beam — with only 28 seconds left in OT — on a feed from Fedor Tyutin, who won a pitched battle to get the puck out of his own zone.
Fast forward to Wednesday night in Anaheim — the home of Mickey Mouse, Cinderella and other fantastical creations. Columbus fell behind 1 – 0 in the first, but converted the equalizer early in the second. However, just 4:32 into the third, it seemed that Central Casting had decreed an end to the happy endings for Columbus. The puck appeared to deflect off of Steckel’s stick, off the base of the net . . . and disappeared. After a hang time that Ray Guy would have envied, the puck dropped out of the sky behind Bobrovsky, landing in the blue paint and malevolently spinning across the line. Devastating, right? Nope. Columbus just kept skating, cycling and exerting pressure. Just five minutes later, Matt Calvert converted a rare rebound, and the game was tied. The Blue Jackets again managed the game, taking the proceedings into overtime, and guaranteeing an all-important point. Facing the final back-to-back of the season in Los Angeles on Thursday, the club apparently decided not to unnecessarily prolong the affair. Just 2:19 in, Foligno took the puck on the left wing and proceeded to perform a Ballet on Ice worthy of the finest Disney production. Having successfully dispatched his defender, he launched the puck in the direction of the near post. Fedor Tyutin, skating hard to the net, put a deft blade on the puck, enabling it to evade Fasth’s pads for the win. Tally for the road trip thus far — three wins in three games.
The Bottom Line
The Blue Jackets have managed to accomplish that elusive goal of putting together a team that is greater than the sum of its parts. While the early season was the predictably messy process of integrating a lot of new bodies and finding out who the contributors were, the degree to which the team has come together is remarkable. While new President of Hockey Operations John Davidson has preached the “one brick at a time” method of building the franchise, he has to be secretly impressed at some of these bricks. Newcomers Anisimov, Dubinsky, Foligno and Erixon were intriguing, but many were skeptical when contrasting them with the loss of Rick Nash. Youngsters Johansen, Calvert and Atkinson held promise, but could they withstand the responsibility? Ditto for former Flyers backup Bobrovsky in goal. Could he become a legitimate NHL starter?
The incoming Rangers contingent proved to be stellar, and Bobrovsky is having a Vezina Trophy caliber season. Those youngsters have excelled, and guys like Dalton Prout and Cody Goloubef emerged as legitimate talent that made former first-rounder John Moore expendable. Moore accompanied Brassard and Derek Dorsett to New York in exchange for Marion Gaborik , who immediately provided scoring punch and puck possession. A draft pick netted Blake Comeau, who notched critical goals against Colorado and Anaheim. The stalwarts of Wisniewski, Johnson & Tyutin have excelled on the blue line, while the penalty kill unit ranks among the best in the league. Coach Todd Richards and his staff have put together a system that is defensively responsible, yet offensively potent, with three legitimate scoring lines and a fourth line that consistently creates opportunity through turmoil.
So, with four games left, the Blue Jackets are “above the line”. Will they stay there? Again, most pundits say not, citing the remaining road games against Los Angeles, San Jose and Dallas. But, if the club can win three in a row on the road, and five in a row overall, why not more? That’s why they play the games, after all.