Blue Jackets need to start their long-anticipated run

Columbus Blue Jackets center Mark Letestu (55) shoots the puck as Pittsburgh Penguins right wing Chris Conner (23) chases during the second period at Nationwide Arena.  

Russell LaBounty/Russell LaBounty-USA TODAY Sport

Walk before you can run? Makes sense most of the time, but not when you’re an NHL team chasing the pack, and the season is starting to dwindle away. That’s the situation facing the Columbus Blue Jackets, and it’s time for the team to make a run — now — if it really has designs on a playoff spot.

After showing some real signs of life with three straight wins just before and after Christmas, the Blue Jackets were slowed again, with losses in two winnable games at home vs. Pittsburgh and on the road against the Avalanche. That was followed by a blowout loss on the road against the Blues but then a gritty shootout win over the Rangers Monday.

Granted, the Blue Jackets have been a relatively consistent team in recent weeks. Actually, since game number 15 of the season, Columbus has never lost more than two games in a row in regulation. The problem is — much like last year — the start. This season, the Blue Jackets split their first 10 games but then lost five in a row. Trying to overcome that early 5-10-0 hole has been the issue, and playing at a pace slightly above .500 won’t do it.

This team needs to run, as in go on a run, and maybe the win at Madison Square Garden is the start. It’s certainly time, and if a strong run doesn’t happen before the Olympic break, it’s going to be even harder to make a realistic push for a playoff spot. The Blue Jackets will play 24 games in only 46 days after the Sochi Games.

That’s a grueling pace under any conditions. But if the team is still chasing several teams for a playoff spot down the stretch, it won’t be very realistic to rest guys with the kind of nagging injuries that will inevitably occur with that intense schedule. Guys playing hurt isn’t the most ideal way to gain ground. Possible, sure, but it’s not very realistic.

There are 15 games left for Columbus before the Olympic break. To put themselves into position to make a viable playoff push after the break, it seems reasonable to think the Blue Jackets have to earn roughly 20 of the next 30 points. That seems much more possible now with some key players returning in recent days.

Certainly, adding Nathan Horton, Sergei Bobrovsky, and (very soon) Matt Calvert makes this a much stronger team. Bobrovsky was brilliant in the win over the Rangers — and he’ll have to be the most important cog in any successful playoff push – but New York was still able to score twice on the power play.

Bobrovsky, Dubinsky lift Jackets by Rangers in SO

That’s just more of the same for the Blue Jackets. Despite much improved five-on-five play, special teams have been the team’s Achilles heel much of the past several weeks, acting like a kind of engine "governor," slowing the Blue Jackets every time they seem ready to take off. Even with the two power play goals in the win over Phoenix Saturday, Columbus is five for 45 with the man advantage since December.

And the penalty kill has been struggling as well, just as it did Monday. Since the month of December, when the team has been putting together some of its best periods of the year at even strength, it could only kill penalties at a rate under 78 percent. That’s one of the key reasons the Blue Jackets have gone only 5-4-0 the past nine games, despite scoring the first goal in every one of those games.

The good news? Key players are back or about to come back, and five-on-five play has improved dramatically. Other than a couple of aberrations lately, this team has stuck to its identity and structure and played well enough to win. If the Blue Jackets can tighten up the penalty kill — and that starts with goaltending — and get the power play rolling, there’s still time. Just not an unlimited amount.