Blue Jackets finding rhythm, gaining confidence

Columbus Blue Jackets center Derek MacKenzie (24) celebrates a goal against the Buffalo Sabres during the first period at Nationwide Arena. 

Russell LaBounty

COLUMBUS – Although the Blue Jackets are still one of the youngest teams in the NHL, they are gaining experience and maturing with each game. After starting the season with a rollercoaster ride of good wins followed by bad losses, they have settled into a rhythm of generally consistent play. They are playing with an increasing confidence that seems to grow stronger every day.

"Anytime you go on a streak like that, you’ve got to have confidence," said left wing RJ Umberger (13-13-26, -7). "Winning does that kind of thing. We’re getting contributions from everybody on the team, so we have a lot of guys that are feeling good. It brings us closer as a group when everyone is contributing."

The team occupies third place in the very tight Metro Division with a record of 26-21-4 for 56 points. Their goal differential remains on the positive side at +5. Maturation, discipline and chemistry all play a hand in their growing confidence.

"We’ve definitely gotten better as the year has gone along," continued Umberger. "The coaches have continued to push us, especially around Christmas time. We’ve really had some harder practices and done a lot of video. We’re constantly working on our game. We haven’t been satisfied with how we’re doing. We think we can be better."

It’s crazy to think, but you can’t be satisfied

Nick Foligno

One of the parts contributing, a "brick," if you will, is the fourth line. Whether it’s providing a spark or getting on the scoreboard, they add a needed dimension to the club. Center Mark Letestu has stepped up as of late, going 2-2-4 in his last five games and is 7-16-23 (-1) on the season.

"I think we’ve earned his trust (head coach Todd Richards)," said Letestu, "and we’ve put together a good stretch of games as a three-man unit, whether it’s scoring goals or not playing in our ‘D’ zone for extended stretches of time and creating some positive momentum."

Although they are young, they do have guys in the room that have been to the postseason and are helping with the maturation of the team. Left wing Nick Foligno has been to the playoffs three times with the Ottawa Senators before coming to Columbus. He’s putting up solid numbers and is 12-15-27 (+2) in 45 games this season.

"Its understanding what type of team we are," he said. "Sometimes, with a young team, it just takes a little while to get that maturity to figure out what works. Then you see guys like Ryan Murray and Boone Jenner. They’ve really stepped up and made themselves professional players. They’ve worked hard all year long to contribute. That helps our team."

"Then you get great goaltending from (Sergei) Bobrovsky and Mac (Curtis McElhinney) all year long. I think it’s just a combination of a bunch of things that have finally come together. You get Nathan Horton in the lineup and he adds such a boost to the team."

"I think that’s where we’re at right now. We’re a team that’s full of confidence, but understanding how we got it. We worked hard to get it. It’s not something that we’re taking for granted, and we can’t. We’ve had to battle through a lot of adversity at the beginning. Now, we’re here at this point and we want to make sure that we keep it going."

Even though they’ve had a great month to this point, going 9-2-0, they are far from satisfied with where they’re at, both as a team and where they are in the standings. Satisfaction is a fleeting feeling.

"No, not even close. It’s crazy to think, but you can’t be satisfied," Foligno said. "As soon as you take your foot off the gas, someone else is going to creep up on you. It’s so tight (division standings) right now, we don’t have room to breathe. We’ve got to keep pushing and playing hard. We have to not be satisfied in the sense that we can still play better and still do the things that need to be done in order to get wins."

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Columbus’ highly-touted free agent acquisition right wing Nathan Horton sees their recent play as a validation of his decision to sign with the Blue Jackets. He has elevated the play of those around him, putting up 4-3-7 (+1) in 11 games. He brings experience to a team that needs it.

"For sure," he said. "I’ve always known that we have a good team with good players on four lines and we’re actually showing it right now. When we work hard, even when I was out, we were in every game. That’s what we’ve been doing lately. We’ve got everybody contributing and working hard. We’ve got a great team here."

The "buy-in" from the players of head coach Todd Richards’ game plan is paying dividends, as Horton explains. "You know, it’s tough being a coach. But, he’s a pretty good coach and everybody repsects him in this room. We want to win for him."

"I’ve always said that when we stick to his gameplan, which is working hard and playing smart, we’re there. We can win every game. It seems that we’ve been listening to him a lot lately. And, that’s what we should be doing."

Head coach Todd Richards is another who is not satisfied, given their recent success. He doesn’t make excuses, but looks at the team he has and knows they can do better.

"I think we have matured as a group," said Richards. "We’ve come together better, as a group. But, we’re still a young team. We still have a lot to learn. There’s still mistakes in games that we make that I think a more mature team, a team that’s better experienced, plays that don’t happen in games."

"So, we’re still learning. We’re able to kind of hide our warts. Our warts aren’t as many and not as big as what they were earlier on in the year. If we want to be a playoff team down the stretch and go far in the playoffs, these are some of the things that we still need to get better at. Those are things (warts) that still show me signs of a lack of maturity, as a group."

With points at a premium, Columbus has to keep playing their game, their way. They’ve proven that they can beat almost any team on any given night. Their next test comes Monday evening in Raleigh, as they take on another divisional foe in the Carolina Hurricanes. The ‘Canes are merely one point behind them in the division. The time to separate themselves from the logjam that is the Metro Division is now. The puck drops at 7 p.m.