Blue Jackets Navigating Foreign Territory

Have you ever had that eerie feeling that someone is after you? For the first time, the Columbus Blue Jackets can relate.

With the NHL All-Star break nearly here, Columbus sits second in the league standings and is primed to return to the playoffs. Sure, every team still has more than 30 games to play and the standings can (and likely will) change a lot during that time, but this is already an unfamiliar position for the Blue Jackets.

For much of their 15-plus NHL seasons, the Blue Jackets have been near the bottom of the NHL standings, reaching the postseason just twice. Even when they did make the playoffs, they finished seventh in their conference and were a bubble team rather than one in contention for the Presidents’ Trophy.

Life After the Streak

(Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Of course, we all know why Columbus is where it is in the standings. The Blue Jackets’ 16-game win streak that ran from late November to early January was the talk of the hockey world and nearly matched an NHL record.

The streak was a great story, especially considering most people expected so little from the Blue Jackets entering this season. While the streak helped put Columbus in an enviable position among the league’s top teams, that also means new challenges for a team that has never been in such a spot.

Targets on Their Backs

Whether or not you believe the Blue Jackets are one of the NHL’s best teams, the fact is that they are in the standings. This means that no opponent should ever lack motivation when facing Columbus. In past seasons, teams could have fallen into an “oh, it’s just the Blue Jackets” approach to a game against Columbus. It’s hard to imagine anyone taking that approach now.

Rather than filling the role of underdog, the Blue Jackets are now being pursued by the many teams in their rearview mirror. Their most recent game, Tuesday’s 4-2 loss to the Islanders, is an example of that dynamic playing out on the ice. New York had its share of struggles during the first half of the season but now finds itself within striking distance of a playoff spot. The Islanders outplayed the Blue Jackets for much of the game’s final two periods, scoring four straight goals while keeping the Columbus offense in check.

The Blue Jackets are 5-6 in 11 games since their winning streak and inconsistency has been a major issue, both from game-to-game and within single games. It was a problem on Tuesday and, after the loss, Columbus captain Nick Foligno discussed the team’s recent issues:

Responding to Tough Times

The 16-game winning streak is what a lot of people will remember about this season, but the second half of the schedule will show what kind of team they really are. All teams go through some sort of adversity, and now the Blue Jackets are doing just that. Good teams find ways to get through those difficult times and win games.

This isn’t to say that it was easy for Columbus to win 16 games in a row, but a lot of things went the their way during that run. Since the streak, the team has already faced challenges.

Depth has been tested on the blue line as defensemen Markus Nutivaara and David Savard both have missed games with injuries. Columbus’s backup goalie situation has become an issue as well — the Blue Jackets waived Curtis McElhinney this month and both Joonas Korpisalo and Anton Forsberg have struggled some in limited action. With Sergei Bobrovsky in the midst of an outstanding campaign, finding a backup goalie may not seem like a priority, but it’s important for the team to find a backup it can trust to avoid overworking Bobrovsky.

(Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports)

The biggest problem, however, has been the team’s inconsistent play. Sure, the Blue Jackets have still won some games, and at times played like a team deserving of its spot in the league standings, but as Foligno discussed, that’s not always the case. That’s something that the Blue Jackets must change sooner rather than later because what won’t be inconsistent is the effort from Columbus’ opponents. One look at the Eastern Conference standings shows that no team is truly out of the playoff race. This means that everybody has something to play for and, as their captain said, the Blue Jackets need to be aware of that.

“Yes we’re in a good position but that can change very quickly,” Foligno said after Tuesday’s loss. “This league is coming for us and we need to be coming for them. We need to be a team that’s on the hunt. We need to be a team that’s hungry for points and we just don’t have that hunger enough in the games.”

If the Blue Jackets can find that hunger and start playing with more consistent effort, people could end up remembering this team for more than just a winning streak.