After a torrid start to the season, the Columbus Blue Jackets have come back to earth recently. After their two most recent outings, a 4-3 overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins and a 5-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils, the Blue Jackets have lost four of their last five games overall. Is it time to panic?
It’s definitely not time to panic as they are in good playoff position. But it is time to realize that the team is performing to what was expected of them earlier in the season. There was a lot of promise for this team. There was also a lot of youth on this team. These last two games showed us both sides of that equation.
Friday – The Promise
Let’s revisit the Penguins game from Friday. The game didn’t go according to plan for the first 40 minutes. After a late goal to end the second period, the Penguins felt good about themselves, carrying a 3-1 lead into the locker room. Then the third period, as it has for most of the season, belonged to the Blue Jackets.
The Blue Jackets outscored the defending Stanley Cup champions 2-0 in that third period to force overtime. To go into PPG Paints Arena and steal a point like that is pretty impressive, given that the Penguins’ home record going in was 21-3-2. The Penguins eventually won the game in overtime, but it doesn’t take anything away from the comeback the Blue Jackets made. That extra point is the reason the Blue Jackets remain second in the Metropolitan as of this writing. Because the Blue Jackets hold a 3-2 points edge in the season series, they own the tiebreaker in the standings.
That point could prove large later in the season when jockeying for playoff position. There aren’t many teams who can go to Pittsburgh down two goals in the third period and force overtime. The Blue Jackets proved they could do that. That’s the promise we referenced above. This team has the players and the skill to overcome deficits. They showed calmness and poise in a hostile environment on the road, and that bodes well for their playoff chances later.
So Friday was good. Saturday, on the other hand, was not good, and not too entirely surprising either.
Saturday – The Youth
The Devils came to Nationwide Arena for the first time this season on Saturday one night after losing an overtime game of their own, 4-3 to the Calgary Flames. The Devils had plenty of motivation knowing who their opponent was. They needed to play their best. The Blue Jackets didn’t have the emotional attachment for this one as they did against the Penguins. Boy, did it show early and often on Saturday.
The first period wasn’t so bad. An unfortunate break of Zach Werenski’s stick led to an odd-man rush for the Devils. A nifty pass from Travis Zajac to Taylor Hall led to an early 1-0 lead. Things happen. The Blue Jackets can overcome an early goal of that kind.
It turned out the night belonged to the Devils in dominating fashion.
The last 40 minutes were all New Jersey. Whether you looked at it from a scoring, speed or effort standpoint, it didn’t matter. It all favored the Devils. This isn’t supposed to happen to the Blue Jackets, right?
This is the youth part we mentioned earlier. The Blue Jackets are still among the youngest teams in the league despite their success this season. There are nights where their youth will show. It showed on full display on Saturday.
The Blue Jackets are still learning different aspects of the game. One of those aspects is learning how to play an opponent where there isn’t an emotional attachment. Whether feeding off the energy of the crowd or more simply, generating the energy yourself, there are ways to make this happen. The Blue Jackets were not ready from an emotional standpoint on Saturday. The question is why.
Was the team tired? It was the second game in two nights. I’m not buying that one. There was the All-Star break and then a two-day break before the Penguins game. Did they underestimate the Devils? The Blue Jackets came in with a sizable lead in the division. Maybe they thought they could sit back since they know they’re a good team. Coach Tortorella at least brought this possibility up during his press conference after the game.
Their recent play shouldn’t come as a surprise. The reason it might surprise you is that it’s happening after their 16-game winning streak. The Blue Jackets are still the second-youngest team in the NHL. The difference now is that teams aren’t surprised by them anymore.
Teams now see the Blue Jackets on their schedule and prepare for them as one of the best teams this season. Instead of hunting, the Blue Jackets are the hunted. This is new territory for them. Again, their youth is showing. This is one big learning experience. It will do wonders in future seasons.
But we are talking about the here and now. Don’t expect the Blue Jackets to string another 16-game winning streak together. There are nights like Saturday where it’s just not your night no matter what you try to do. Give credit to the opponent for executing their plan. It’s easy to get discouraged about a game like Saturday. But it’s part of the process. It happened one night after a gutsy third-period performance in Pittsburgh. A young team like the Blue Jackets will learn from this situation and come out better.
With that said, the Blue Jackets must tighten up defensively. They are letting in goals now that they weren’t early in the season. In fact, every Blue Jackets goalie, including waived goalie Curtis McElhinney, has turned in save percentages under .900 of late.
#CBJ save percentage since Jan. 4: .890
Bobrovsky .895, Korpisalo .893, McElhinney* .868, Forsberg .852.
— Aaron Portzline (@Aportzline) February 5, 2017
Injuries are adding up. The Blue Jackets have been without David Savard. Markus Nutivaara just returned to the lineup Saturday. Both bring stability to the defense. Who knew before their injuries how valuable they really were? Sans Savard, you add Scott Harrington to one of the youngest defense corps in the league.
So although youth is a major reason for this stretch, there is promise to go along with this youth. The result is flashes of brilliance mixed with stretches of bad play. The good news is that it’s correctable, especially when the team gains more exposure and experience.
Be ready for a roller-coaster ride of emotions in the meantime. When you have a young team full of promise, it’s only expected.