The halcyon days of riding the rollercoaster that was the early part of the season are slipping into the past.
In the first 16 games of the season, the Blue Jackets posted a record of 6-10-0 and were mired at the bottom of the Metro Division. Going 12-4-0 since Jan. 1, Columbus is now one of the hottest teams in the NHL heading into the Olympic break.
Although it has been said by all of the players and coaches that they can’t look back at the 19-5-5 run to finish last season, their recent play is indicative of a return to that form. They are finding ways to win, even when they are not playing their best hockey. In the last 16 games they have outscored their opponents 56-39. Their offense is stepping up in a way that has rarely been seen in the past on such a consistent basis.
"We all know that we have to", said Nathan Horton. "It’s so tight (in division) that if we don’t go on a roll, we’re not going to be in the playoffs. Everybody wants to be in the playoffs, because it’s the most fun time of the year. So, we have to do something like that."
Teams that go deep in the playoffs, and Championship teams for that matter, get contributions from all, up and down the line-up. Columbus is becoming a team that can roll four lines on a nightly basis. Horton, as part of the Stanley Cup-winning Boston Bruins in 2011, knows a bit about what it takes to be a contender.
"If you look at our team," said Horton, "we have four lines that can play. Our fourth line is playing unbelievable right now. We roll four lines and we’ve got great goaltending. Anything can happen in the playoffs once you get in there. I think for sure, if we go on a streak and are feeling goodâ¦ any team can win on any given night, it doesn’t matter if they’re in last place or first place. We’ve got a great team and if we play to the best of our abilities, we can beat any team on any night."
Another facet of the recent successful run for Columbus is the club being relatively healthy for the first time all season. The players that were on the Injured Reserve list on any given night prior to the halfway point of the season was rather long. It was as if when one player got healthy and returned to the lineup, another was injured. Back and forth it went.
"I think what we’re seeing now," said RJ Umberger, "is that we’re getting guys back healthy and staying relatively healthy. It’s been ‘get-one, lose-one’ all year. It’s nice to have our lines intact. We have three power play lines and everyone is contributing right now. It feels good."
Twenty year old rookie defenseman Ryan Murray has quietly had an almost stellar first year in the NHL. He’s played in all 56 games this season for Columbus and garnered 3-16-19 (+3), while only having 10 PIM’s (lowest among CBJ defensemen this year). This is indicative of his smart play with the puck and his situational awareness while on the ice. As had been said here before, he learns from his mistakes and is one of the best, if not the best, consistent defenseman on this Blue Jackets team.
"We definitely want to be on the winning side more than the losing side", Murray said. "We went on that long streak (eight consecutive wins), then we lost three in a row after that. We want to eliminate that (losing streak). We need to keep playing mostly the same hockey that we have been. We’ve been playing some really good hockey, not perfect, but pretty good. We’re giving ourselves a chance to win every night."
With the team getting better offense, sound defensive play and very good goaltending, they are proving to be a team that many would not want to play in the first round of the playoffs. While it’s not a certainty of where they will end up in the standings at the end of the regular season, their play of late has them in the playoff conversation on an almost nightly basis.
"We have to keep working hard", said Sergei Bobrovsky. "We have to make a good run for the playoffs. Everyone is tight in the standings. Every game is huge at this time of year."
"It all depends on us. It depends on how hard we work and how bad we want to win, you know? It goes step by step. Every game, you take one step and we have to take it."
Columbus has two games left (back-to-back) before the Olympic break against Los Angeles and San Jose, respectively. Finishing this 18 game stretch since January 1 going 14-4-0 would be huge for this club. Do they have the wherewithal to do it?