Blue Jackets’ resiliency can give them upper hand in playoff push
Resiliency is the hallmark of a maturing team. When the season began back on Oct. 4, 2013, Columbus was the youngest team in the league. With an average age of 26.3, the Blue Jackets, on opening night, looked to pick up right where they left off last year.
Alas, they embarked on a rollercoaster ride through the first few months of the new season, dropping four in a row followed by a three-game winning streak in October. They proceeded to then hit a five-game skid to start November.
Then, the 7-0 shellacking at the hands of the Edmonton Oilers in Rexall Place on Nov. 19. The very next night, they took the Calgary Flames to OT for a 2-1 victory. Two days later, they were schooled by the Vancouver Canucks to the tune of a 6-2 loss. They travelled to Toronto on Nov. 25 and shut out the Maple Leafs 6-0 in the Air Canada Centre. And so it went.
Their second game in the New Year saw the St. Louis Blues light them up for six goals while holding Columbus to a paltry two. At the end of that night (1/4/14), the Blue Jackets had won just 18 games, had a -2 goal differential and were wallowing in seventh place in the Metro division with 40 points.
Then, something happened. The forward lines began to solidify and gel as they went on an eight-game winning streak in January to set a new franchise record. During that eight-game streak, they outscored their opponents 35-17. They were playing their game, their way. A steadfast focus and hard work were the mantra.
At the Olympic break, they were in fourth place in the Metro, had a goal differential of +5 and were three points behind the third place Philadelphia Flyers. They had clawed their way back into the playoff hunt.
The post-Olympic play of the team was reminiscent of a slow start to the season. They were a step slow out of the gate and not playing a full 60-minute game. The race for the playoffs in the Metro division had become extremely tight, with eight points separating second place from seventh. They had seemingly done away with the bombastic losses at this point.
Then they travelled to Chicago last Thursday to take on the reigning Stanley Cup Champion Blackhawks. Their play was uninspired, with a lackadaisical approach to playing one of the best teams in the league. They lost defenseman Nikita Nikitin for the majority of the game after he suffered a hit to the head and goalie Sergei Bobrovsky was pulled before the halfway point. When the final horn sounded, the 6-1 loss stung. But what stung worse was the fact that they weren’t emotionally involved in the game.
"I thought we lacked intensity," said Columbus head coach Todd Richards after that game. "It wasn’t everyone. We had some guys that wanted to get involved, but there were too many guys that weren’t involved in the game."
But if there’s one thing that this club has shown, it is that it’s resilient. They followed that ugly loss to Chicago by going into Nashville and handing the Predators a 1-0 defeat in their own barn. Although their defensive corps has been beset by injuries with the loss of Fedor Tyutin and Ryan Murray after the Olympics, they played a hard-nosed and physical game.
The game in Nashville saw forwards Corey Tropp and Blake Comeau draw back into the lineup, providing a much-needed jolt of energy. Tropp took matters into his own hands early in the second period, dropping the gloves with the Predators Eric Nystrom. Columbus then started to assert control of the Predators, driving the play with a good forecheck and solid movement through the neutral zone.
Defenseman Nick Schultz was acquired at the trade deadline last Wednesday to shore up an injury-riddled blue line. A veteran of 873 games in the NHL, Schultz said after the Nashville game, "It was a fast-paced game. They came out in the first and obviously had the upper hand on us. In the second, we came back, responded and got our game going. In the third, we stuck with it and got a goal. It was a big win."
With 18 games to go in the regular season, it has been said here that Columbus needs to go down the stretch winning every two out of three games to secure a playoff spot. Since the break, they are 4-2-0. They currently occupy eighth place (wildcard position) in the Eastern Conference. In the Metro, they trail the second place New York Rangers by three points and the third place Philadelphia Flyers by two as they sit in fourth place.
The race is still tight within the division. Only five points separate the second place Rangers from the sixth place New Jersey Devils. The race for a guaranteed playoff position within the division will most likely come down to the final week, if not the final weekend, of play.
If there’s one thing that this team has shown throughout the season, but especially since the Christmas holidays, it is that they are a resilient group. This is a sign of maturity and poise that successful teams bring to the rink every night. As the chemistry grows and the youngsters gain valuable experience, the extreme rollercoaster rides should begin to wane. Resiliency is a powerful, must-have trait for the Blue Jackets to move to the next level.