Blue Jackets making up ground slowly but surely

Looking at just their next game has allowed the Blue Jackets to focus on diggging themselves out an early hole. But it is a slow process.

On Jan. 8, 2014, the Blue Jackets were sixth place in the Metropolitan Division with a record of 19-20-4 worth 42 points. Due to the upcoming Olympic Games, they had played 43 games at that point of the season. They had just won the first of what would be an eight-game winning streak against the New York Rangers and trailed the third place (Metro Division) Washington Capitals by four points.

Fast-forward one year and they find themselves sitting fifth in division with a record of 18-17-3, good for 39 points and trailing the third place Capitals by 10 points. In the wild-card race, they are nine points behind the New York Rangers (48 points) and 8 points behind the Boston Bruins (46 points).

After 38 games this season, they have lost 249 man games due to injury. It has been nothing short of a tumultuous season for the Blue Jackets. The low point had to be looking up at 29 other teams ahead of them on Nov. 30.

While their fortunes have changed by going on a 12-1-1 run since Dec. 1, they still are on the outside looking in. In the division, they have seen a net gain of just two points on third place. The race for a wild-card spot is a bit better, in that they’ve seen a net gain of five points on the second wild-card position.

Last season, it took 93 points to secure one of the two wild-card spots. To equal that, they need another 54 points over the last 44 games. Going 24-14-6 down the stretch would get them to 93 points. While this may seem to be a daunting task, last year they went 26-15-3 over that same stretch of 44 games.

For myriad reasons, they have been a better second-half team the last few years. Although it’s not ideal, they have proven over the last few years that they can turn things around. They don’t sit back and hope that they get help from other teams. It may be a cliche, but they truly mean it when they say they look at just the next game they have to play.

The next game for them is Friday night against a struggling Toronto Maple Leafs team that just fired their head coach earlier this week and lost to the Capitals on Wednesday night 6-2. They have lost their last three games and eight of their last 10 after posting a 10-1-1 run.

One of the things that’s been working for the Blue Jackets is getting healthy bodies back into the lineup. Mark Letestu and Cam Atkinson returned for Tuesday’s win over the Dallas Stars. December saw the return of Fedor Tyutin, Brandon Dubinsky and Cody Goloubef from Injured Reserve. The additions of Jeremy Morin and Kevin Connauton have paid dividends, also.

LUNCH PAIL PLAY OF THE WEEK

Some say that they need to play "playoff" hockey the rest of the way just to make the playoffs and I don’t disagree, to an extent. What it really boils down to is that they need to play to their identity every night they step on the ice. By doing this, they give themselves a chance to win. The returning players and the additions mentioned above mean that the team has fresh bodies for the push.

This, in and of itself, is worth its weight in gold. The spark and energy will be that much more going into the second-half of the season. Another aspect that works in their favor is the mentality within the room. They’ve lost track of how many times pundits have counted them out and they really don’t care. It adds fuel to their internal fire and a desire to prove them wrong.

That’s something that no statistic will ever be able to capture. The intangibles within the game of hockey can be, and many times are, just as important as what the statistics on a sheet of paper or a computer screen will tell you.

Every player within the room acknowledges they have an uphill climb and that they need to be better. They are not content, nor should they be. For if they were, the conversation would already be full-bore about drafting Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel next June. This is a concept that is anathema to them.

The climb up the standings is a painfully slow one after the hole that was dug earlier this season. But if there’s one thing that everyone should have learned about this team over the last few seasons, it’s that they should not be counted out prematurely.