Improbable turnaround has Blue Jackets climbing in Metro

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              Columbus Blue Jackets goaltender Elvis Merzlikins makes a save during second-period NHL hockey game action against the Montreal Canadiens in Montreal, Sunday, Feb. 2, 2020. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press via AP)
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COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The Columbus Blue Jackets were tanking fast two months ago.

They were 11-14-4, had lost four in a row and timely goals were as scarce as winter sunshine in Columbus. Hopes for a fourth straight playoff appearance were slipping away. Coach John Tortorella was exasperated, and the organization was starting to look to developing next year.

Near the bottom of the Metropolitan Division and 11 points from a playoff spot on Dec. 9, the Blue Jackets walloped the division-leading Washington Capitals 5-2. That started a 18-2-5 run that has fans hopeful of a potential playoff run.

The way it happened made the turnaround even more improbable.

The Blue Jackets were plagued by injuries in December and January, with as many as 10 regular players sidelined. Lines were patched together with players who started the season in Cleveland with the team’s AHL affiliate.

Then came more back luck. Goaltender Joonas Korpisalo, who had gotten hot enough to be selected for the NHL All-Star Game, injured his left knee during a shootout with Chicago on Dec. 29. That set the stage for rookie Elvis Merzlikins, who was 0-4-4 this season and ensconced on the bench.

Merzlikins helped provide the fireworks on New Year’s Eve when he turned in a 36-save performance in a 4-1 win over Florida and former Blue Jackets star goalie Sergei Bobrovsky. Since assuming the starting role, he’s 12-2-0, including four shutouts, and has become a fan favorite.

The Blue Jackets returned from their NHL-mandated break by picking up three points in a road back-to-back and moved into third place in the rugged Metropolitan Division. Oliver Bjorkstrand, previously a steady presence but far from a star, is on a scoring tear.

“I think winning breeds confidence,” Columbus captain Nick Foligno said. “I think when you’re a team finding ways to win or at least feeling positive about your game, it’s amazing what that does for you. You don’t feel like you’re carrying a piano on your back and your confidence comes with that.”

Aside from Merzlikins, rookies Emil Bemstrom, Eric Robinson and Vladislav Gavrikov have emerged as key contributors. So has 5-foot-5 NHL journeyman Nathan Gerbe, who since signing with Columbus in January 2018 had spent most of his time in Cleveland.

“That’s the most enjoyable part of coaching, when you’re developing people and you’re pushing and you’re tugging and you’re kicking and you’re hugging and you’re doing all the things to try to help people to perform,” said Tortorella, who is being talked about as a candidate for his third Jack Adams Award as coach of the year.

He keeps warning, though, that there is still much work to be done with this team.

“What happened is we win a few games and you think we have all the answers,” he told reporters recently. “We don’t have all the answers. This year is no different from any other. Every year brings different problems.”

GAME OF THE WEEK

The Pittsburgh Penguins, coming off a 4-3 win over Washington on Sunday, face another stiff test when they play at Tampa Bay on Thursday. The Lightning are chasing division-leading Boston in the Atlantic, and the Penguins trail the Capitals in the Metropolitan.

LEADERS

(Through Monday, Feb. 3)

Goals: David Pastrnak (Boston), 38; Assists: Leon Draisaitl (Edmonton), 54; Points: Draisaitl, 83; Ice Time: Thomas Chabot (Ottawa), 26:16; Wins: Vasilevskiy Tampa Bay), 24; Goals-Against Average: Darcy Kuemper (Arizona); 2.17; Save Percentage: Chris Driedger (Florida), .932.