Fourth line making difference for Jackets
COLUMBUS — On a night when the Blue Jackets played their 1,000th regulation game in team history, they showed why they are the hottest team in the NHL right now. 15,571 fans witnessed them improve their franchise record for consecutive wins to eight, currently the longest active winning-streak in the league.
They’ve outscored their opponents 33-17 during this run and their power play is 8 for 31, clicking at 25.8 percent. They are 9-1-0 in January, which is also the best in the NHL. They sit in 3rd place, and a guaranteed playoff seed, in the Metropolitan Division. People around the league are starting to take notice.
And yet, it all comes down to getting the "W" on each and every night. They don’t worry about which team is ahead of them, nor the ones behind. They come to the rink and put themselves in a position to play for the win. What about the streak? To the guys in the room, it’s all about winning the game that they’re playing.
They are, by far, the best collection of players to don the Union Blue in the history of the club. With no marquee players, they have found and embraced their identity of hard work and never quitting.
"It’s a great accomplishment for our players," said head coach Todd Richards. "There’s a confidence in the room, now. I think there’s an understanding of how we need to play, what we need to do as a group to have success."
"We have players step up at different times. That’s the great thing about it, too. It’s not one line, it’s not only our goalie. We’re getting contributions from a lot of different guys. I think that’s probably why it works with this group. I don’t think guys are caught up in the points and all these other things."
"It’s about the wins. It doesn’t matter if he gets it or I get it. It’s about the wins right now."
One facet of playoff-caliber teams is the ability to roll four lines. Columbus is at that stage presently with Mark Letestu, Derek MacKenzie and Corey Tropp. In years past, fourth line guys might get four minutes of playing time a game. Sometimes, they wouldn’t get even that much. Against the Flyers, Letestu (14:10), MacKenzie (9:53) and Tropp (6:14) did what they do best, provided energy and a spark.
Although they don’t always get on the score sheet, their contributions cannot be minimized. Many times, just one shift by these players is all that it takes to energize their teammates and swing momentum in their favor.
"There’s obviously flows in games," said MacKenzie. "You can sit back when you’re not playing so much and recognize those things. It’s easy for us, sitting back and watching it, sometimes, to say ‘Hey, this is a shift where we have to go out, put our heads down and try to create some momentum.’ Nine times out of ten, it’s certainly not going to result in a goal. We understand that."
"As a fourth line, you kind of put your head down, work hard and hope you come up with two points. Anything above that is a bonus. When these guys play as well as they do, it allows us to play a little bit more. That makes it all the better for us, to make us feel like we’re involved."
Last night, their line was 1-1-2, +5. At times, the games hinge on just one shift by these guys. Successful teams know this and utilize their fourth line effectively. Columbus is becoming one of those teams.
"Ever since Richie (Todd Richards) has been here," continued MacKenzie, "he’s been more than fair with our line. It is what it is. If we’re playing well, then he plays us. If it’s a tight game and we need a goal, then we don’t (play). We realize that. Whether it’s two minutes or ten minutes, we want to be part of a win. You’ll never hear those guys (Letestu, Tropp) complain. That’s why I love playing with guys like that."
Corey Tropp, since being picked off waivers from Buffalo in November, has found a home on the fourth line with Letestu and MacKenzie. He’s 2-4-6, +9 in 24 games for the Blue Jackets. Conversely, in Buffalo this year, he was 0-1-1, -8 in 9 games. He has bought in to the collective mindset and embraced his role alongside his line-mates.
"When you’re working hard in practice," Tropp said, "when you’re working as a team, you’ll set yourself up for success. It’s a testament to the coaches for preparing us with the gameplan to come out every night. As players, it’s our job to go out there, play as hard as we can and try to win every night."
"It’s a tough league to win games in. To win eight straight is humbling for our group. It’s something that you have to appreciate, but we can’t be satisfied. We can’t get complacent. Everyone in this room has been on the other side of it. Everyone knows what it feels like to lose. We’ve got to keep working hard, play our team system and hopefully we’ll get the results we need."
"It’s our job to get pucks in deep, get their ‘D’ tired and make it a 200-foot game, every time we’re on the ice. All three of us take pride in helping the team. We want to contribute. But, it’s definitely a team effort. It’s not just our line. We don’t get as many shifts, but you’ve got to do the best with what you’re given and make the most of it."
All three of these players know that they contribute each and every night. Pride fills their voice when they talk about the team, yet are humble when the talk turns to them. For Columbus to become a perennial playoff caliber team, the fourth line guys need to continue to play with energy and verve.
"Successful teams play four lines," said Tropp. "If you look at the Stanley Cup Finals every year, the teams that are going the distance are a four line team."