Nearly two months into the season, perhaps it's time to anoint the Columbus Blue Jackets as the biggest surprise team in the NHL.
Looking for a season high-tying fourth straight win — and the 500th in franchise history — the Blue Jackets wrap up their season series with the Arizona Coyotes on Monday night at Nationwide Arena.
Since entering the league as an expansion team in 2000, Columbus (14-5-4) reached the postseason twice and was eliminated in the opening round each time. While there are still almost 60 games to play in the regular season, the Blue Jackets appear to have the pieces to get in the playoffs and to stick around for a while.
“We want to earn respect, because we don't have any right now,” Columbus coach John Tortorella told the team's official website in November.
The Blue Jackets' play is turning heads. Columbus' five regulation losses are the fewest in the league, and it is averaging 3.13 goals per game — just barely ahead of the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins and trailing only the New York Rangers.
The Blue Jackets, third in the Metropolitan Division, scored 15 goals in a three-game winning streak over Arizona, and averaged nearly four goals per game while winning six of the last seven at home against the Coyotes.
The teams met for the first time this season on Saturday night in Arizona. Boone Jenner scored 13 seconds in and Columbus fired a franchise-record 60 shots on goal through overtime before coming away with a 3-2 shootout win.
Jenner scored in each of his last two games, giving him four in 23 contests. He had 11 goals through 23 games last season, and finished with a career-best 30. Tortorella — never shy about speaking his mind — said the team needs Jenner to produce like he once did.
“We've been able to find our way here in the first quarter of the season without him being a big part of our offense,” Tortorella told the Columbus Dispatch. “He's done a lot of other things. But if we can just get his offense going, then you have a little bit of balance if one of our other lines has an off night.”
What Tortorella has been getting at home is balanced scoring. Four players each totaled at least 10 points in Columbus — Cam Atkinson (15), Alexander Wennberg (12), Zach Werenski (12) and Nick Foligno (11). Scott Hartnell and Brandon Saad added nine points apiece.
Tortorella appears most grateful for Werenski, taken eighth overall in the 2015 NHL Draft.
“We have an (elite, young) defenseman, and that's a huge position in our game,” Tortorella told the Columbus Dispatch. “… You're always looking for that guy. We feel very fortunate to have a guy who can run our power play at 19 years old. He has a lot to learn, but we feel very fortunate that we have him.”
After Curtis McElhinney won in the desert, the Blue Jackets will likely turn to Sergei Bobrovsky in goal. With 13 wins, Bobrovsky needs two more to match the total he recorded in 37 games during an injury-plagued 2015-16 season.
Bobrovsky is 11-2-1 with a 1.96 goals-against average, a .930 save percentage and two shutouts in his last 14 games.
Arizona (8-11-4) is in the middle of a stretch of four games in six days, and will be looking to avoid its fourth straight loss. The Coyotes are last in the Pacific Division and one point ahead of Colorado Avalanche, currently at the bottom of the West.
“We're trying to be as competitive as we can,” coach Dave Tippett told the Arizona Republic. “We're scratching and clawing trying to get points. We feel like we're in every game.”
Mike Smith stopped a career-best 58 shots Saturday — the third time in four games that he's faced at least 40 shots.
“Frustrating would be a good word but it's even worse than that right now,” Smith said. “At some point, you'd like to see your team move forward and take steps in the right direction to start having your chance to win hockey games.
“It seems like once we take one step forward we're taking a couple back. It's tough to play like that in this league and expect to come out and win hockey games.”
Smith is 1-2-1 with a 2.90 GAA and .887 save percentage over his last five games in Columbus. Coyotes captain Shane Doan said Smith is keeping the team in games.
“The last two weeks he's been in a zone,” Doan said. “That's the only reason we're even remotely close to getting points or getting any kind of team success.”
Doan, who scored in Saturday's loss, is on the cusp of a milestone, needing one goal to become the 93rd player in NHL history to score 400. Doan, the last of the original Winnipeg Jets after being selected seventh overall in 1995, scored a goal in two of his last three visits to Ohio, giving him nine in 26 career games there.