The NHL returned stronger than ever in its first full month back since the latest lockout. The season was saved, but with an abbreviated season comes a myriad of pains for the players. From increased travel to a heavily inflated IR, the rigorous shortened schedule has resulted in less finesse and an increase in dump-and-chase hustle style of play on the ice. It may not be pretty, but it’s just the way the Columbus Blue Jackets like it.
Following a league-worst record in 2011-12 and lackluster blockbuster that sent longtime captain Rick Nash packing, the sky, er, bottomless pit seemed to be the limit for how terrible these Jackets could be. Despite a tough start, Columbus has clawed their way back into the playoff picture.
Most spectators outside Columbus surely consider the recent surge a fluke, but, believe it or not, the Cannon is riding the longest active win streak in the NHL. Columbus has overcome devastating injuries to James Wisniewski and Derek Dorsett with five straight wins boasting a record of 6-2-2 in their last ten contests. They’re the hottest team nobody is talking about.
If the young gun Blue Jackets keep up the consistent intensity they can accomplish something no team in franchise history has before: a postseason victory. Let’s look at the factors that could help Columbus punch a ticket to the second season.
The Young and Restless
Columbus is one of the youngest teams in the NHL. A dearth of recent success has led to a wealth of youth and raw ability. Coach Todd Richards’ system has finally turned potential into progress. Matt Calvert leads a line of speedsters who can wear out any line in the league. Since his latest stint in Springfield Ryan Johansen is rarely far from the puck, setting up plenty of chances for he and R.J. Umberger.
The chemistry building between rising young stars in Columbus will serve them will down a tough second half stretch. Every team’s health has been affected by the lack of training camp and increased frequency of games. Just ask Ottawa or Detroit. While those and other veteran teams struggle to replace key cogs lost to injury, Columbus has proven flexible. The young Jackets have developed great chemistry and demonstrated uncanny hustle. Thanks to superb development by Springfield’s Brad Larsen unknown prospects like Dalton Prout and Cody Goloubef are better prepared when called upon.
The scrappy Blue Jackets may not be the savviest team in the league, but they never give up on a play. In a year when back-to-back games are common youthful exuberance and explosiveness will help to offset the Jackets’ lack of experience.
Built Together Rather Than Around
For years, seemingly only concern in Columbus was how to help Rick Nash. When will they find Nash a true center? When will they find the perfect wing to compliment 61? As evidenced by recent turnover in the front office, that’s no way to build an NHL caliber roster.
Players drafted to compliment Nash are thriving without him. Johansen, Atkinson, and Calvert are coming into their own with more responsibility. Under-the-radar vets Vaclav Prospal and Umberger are flourishing with increased ice time and less pressure to feed the puck to a superstar. New Jacket Artem Anisimov has proven to be more valuable for Columbus than expected when first acquired from the Rangers. Anonymity among the ranks and a shared captaincy has resulted in selfless efforts night in and night out. Was losing Rick Nash good for Columbus? Perhaps not, but they are undoubtedly a better team in his absence.
A Work in Progress
Many of the Jackets’ underachieving prospects have proven to be late bloomers rather than busts. In an age featuring teen phenoms the likes of Tavares, Crosby, and Hall, fans are impatient as ever for results. It took a couple years for Columbus’ top prospects to become mainstays in the line-up, but good things come to those who wait. The resilient young Columbus core has already made significant strides this season and will only get better as the season progresses.
With each game, the young Jackets grow more comfortable, confidant, and connected. After years of suffering at the hands of the Red Wings, the Blue Jackets dominated the season series racking up nine of ten possible points against Detroit. The weekend sweep of the Wings makes it five in a row for the streaking Jackets. Led by the steady play of Bobrovsky, Columbus has been playing solid hockey for more than a month now. Ten of their last eleven games have been decided by one goal including tough losses to Chicago and St. Louis.
The Jackets have a golden opportunity to extend their win streak with a five game home stand up next on the schedule. Once counted out, Columbus is only a few games out of a spot in the post season with plenty of season to go. If they continue to play with the heart and confidence they’ve demonstrated over the last month they might just nab that elusive eighth seed. As Los Angeles proved, an energetic eighth seed with nothing to lose can be very dangerous in the playoffs. Watch your backs Chicago and Anaheim, these Blue Jackets are looking for a fight come May.