Blue Jackets Have Hope at Halfway Point

The Columbus Blue Jackets completed game 42 Saturday afternoon against the San Jose Sharks. Although the Blue Jackets lost the game 3-2 to start their second half, there’s still plenty of good things going around.

The Blue Jackets ended the first half with a 12-game point streak going 8-0-4. This has allowed them to not only get back in the playoff race, but knock on the front door of the second wildcard. As of Sunday morning, they sit just three points behind the Philadelphia Flyers for the Eastern Conference’s second wildcard spot.

Not so long ago, many were wondering when it was time to think about the next NHL Draft and the chances of landing a superstar talent. But thanks to the point streak among other things, the Blue Jackets have hope and a fighting chance for this season.

Just how have the Blue Jackets been able to overcome the odds and put themselves in this position with half the season left? It’s a miraculous story when you consider the current injured list. But a few things stand out. The story of the first half of the Blue Jackets comes down to one main theme. They are playing as a team and that is no cliche.

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Overcoming Injuries

One-by-one, Blue Jackets were falling from the ranks of the healthy. We’re not just talking about small injuries either. Joonas Korpisalo had to be helped off the ice. Alex Texier has a lumbar injury where there’s question to if he could come back this season.

Their three best right wingers in Cam Atkinson, Josh Anderson and Oliver Bjorkstrand all got hit hard with injury. Ryan Murray has missed significant time. There’s plenty more. You can see more here.

So it was next man up. Look at some of these names. Kevin Stenlund. Nathan Gerbe. Eric Robinson. Jacob Lilja. Ryan MacInnis. Gabriel Carlsson. These players have played significant minutes of late. They are part of the reason why the Blue Jackets kept right on trucking along collecting important points in the standings.

For these players, it was an opportunity. They got their chance to show that they belong in the big show. They’ve run with it.

But even more importantly, the current roster is playing like a team. That was sorely lacking early in the season. These players are filling their role and have made life difficult on opponents.

Players are going to start to get healthy. With that comes some interesting and tough decisions. I wouldn’t suspect everyone will go back to Cleveland. John Tortorella has had some glowing remarks about Gerbe of late. Who else could stay? That’s certainly worth watching.

The youth have helped the Blue Jackets back in the playoff race. Now can the established veterans finish the deal and make it a fourth straight trip to the playoffs?

Nathan Gerbe Blue Jackets
Nathan Gerbe has played well since being called up from Cleveland. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Strong Goaltending & Defense

The Blue Jackets are nowhere near the playoff race without their goaltending. Korpisalo earned a trip to the All-Star Game based on his season. We’re not sure yet if he’ll participate given his injury, but it is doubtful. Still his season has been excellent especially recently.

Korpisalo is 17-10-4 with a 2.49 goals-against and a .913 save percentage. His December numbers put the season in perspective.

He went 6-2-3 with a 1.94 goals-against and a .932 save percentage. That’s a Vezina-like month. But since he went down, his backup Elvis Merzlikins had a chance to step in. He’s done well since having to take over.

Merzlikins in his three starts since the Korpisalo injury is 2-1 with a 1.68 goals-against and a .945 save percentage. He’s getting more comfortable with each passing start. This bodes well having two capable goalies down the stretch of the season.

While the goaltending gets credit as they should, the overall team defense deserves the same credit. The Blue Jackets allow just 2.71 goals per game which is seventh best in the NHL. Despite the injuries, they have been able to use their depth to their advantage. They’ve made life easier on their goaltenders.

Columbus Blue Jackets Elvis Merzlikins
Elvis Merzlikins is getting more comfortable with each passing day. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Tortorella’s Steadiness

So the Blue Jackets are using strong defense and goaltending while playing as a team to their advantage. The third reason the Blue Jackets are where they are is Tortorella.

When you have that many injuries to key players, you have to have a strong leader behind the bench to keep everyone together and find a way. This is where Tortorella excels.

The team has carried the right attitude throughout this ordeal. It’s next man up no matter what happens. They just go about their business and prepare whoever is there for the next game. He says it all the time as though it’s cliche. But this is what they do.

It’s worked. Look who they have defeated recently. The Capitals twice. The Islanders. The Bruins. These are among the best teams in the NHL and the Blue Jackets have come back into this season defeating these powerhouses. It’s a clear sign the message is getting across to these players. They are upbeat and confident. It shows they buy into what Tortorella is saying. His steadiness has helped navigate very tricky waters and now there is hope for this season.

John Tortorella Columbus Blue Jackets
John Tortorella has been a steadying force behind the Blue Jackets’ bench. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

In Conclusion

This first half has been an up and down ordeal. From Merzlikins getting shelled in his NHL debut to just completing a 12-game point streak, the Blue Jackets have been on a wild ride.

It doesn’t matter how you get there. It’s that you find a way to get there. The Blue Jackets have found a way to get in the playoff race. They have 40 games to play and three points to make up. There is plenty of hope in that locker room they can finish the deal. How can they finish the deal?

Stay tuned for part two where we will outline what has to happen for the Blue Jackets to complete the comeback and make these playoffs.