There’s no way but the hard way for the Blue Jackets
Resilience is defined as "the power or ability to return to the original form after being bent, compressed or stretched."
The Blue Jackets have shown they are a resilient group of players the last two years. In the lockout shortened 2012-13 season they got off to an abysmal start, going 5-12-2. They finished that year with a 19-5-5 run, just missing out on the playoffs.
Last season saw them start 5-10-0 before slowly starting the climb up the standings. They were aided in their quest for a return to the playoffs with an 8 game winning streak in January. They finished the season at 43-32-7 for 93 points and a ticket to the playoff dance.
Once again, they face the daunting task of trying to be even more resilient than they ever have been.
Through 35 games they have a record of 16-16-3 for 35 points. Thirty-two days ago, they were dead last in the NHL with a record of 6-15-2 (14 points). Between the seventh game and the twenty-third game of the season, they had losing streaks of 9 and 6 games, respectively. That’s a span of just 17 games.
The resiliency comes into play when you look at their record over the last 12 games. They went 10-1-1 in the month of December, as they started to climb out of the hole that they dug in the first two months of the season.
"It was hard for the first month and a half," said Scott Hartnell. "I think everyone’s mindset was in different directions and guys were going different places. Now that we’ve kind of figured things out and got some guys back from injuries that are real important to this dressing room, we’ve come together and see where we need to go."
It’s not just one or two facets of their game that are getting back on track. Goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky has been outstanding of late, the defense is playing a smarter, more cohesive game and the forwards are putting forth secondary scoring efforts.
"It says a lot for a group that could have written the season off 20 games in, right?" Hartnell said. "Now, we’re 35 games in and we can see the guys (teams above them) ahead of us. Every night you have to fight for points and we’ve been doing that. It’s totally night and day from a month ago to now. Guys are feeling confident, and that’s what you need… a confident, hard-working group every night. That’s what we’ve got going."
Confidence is a fickle thing. When it’s there, it’s infectious and spreads among the players and the organization like a rampant wildfire. When it is lacking, there’s nothing to set a baseline on and many are going through the motions, not knowing how to escape the catch-22 they find themselves in.
"I think it’s a commitment from the players," said head coach Todd Richards. "I don’t want to get too far ahead, but there are some things we have to deal with as an organization and as a team, so that we don’t keep putting ourselves into these positions. It takes a commitment from the players to stay with it."
The slow or haphazard starts need to be corrected to give the team a chance from the earliest stages of a season to be considered a ‘contender’ for the playoffs. Having to play ‘playoff hockey’ for four months just to get into the dance will not pay long-term dividends, and will see a relatively early exit from playoff contention.
While the reasons for the slow start may change from year to year, a way needs to found to break that cycle. Starting the season on a more even footing will go a long way towards making things a touch easier as the end of the season draws closer. Is it the injuries, their youth or failing to meet high expectations that have seen the cycle continue?
"The situations that we’ve found ourselves in, before the season has started," Dalton Prout said, "we have created such a buzz in this city and high expectations. Being that we’re a young team, maybe you listen to the media a little bit and you get some anxious jitters realizing how high you set the bar. In the offseason, you have time to sit down and think about how the season will play out. You have to have a good start and that adds to the pressure you put on yourself.
"Whereas, during the season you’re rolling, you’re playing every other day. It’s easier to get in a groove. We finished on a high note in the lockout year. We finished in the playoffs last year. The last couple of seasons, we’ve set ourselves up for such high expectations that maybe our focus went astray a little bit to start the seasons."
For better or worse, this is all part of the maturation process for such a young team. It doesn’t take year after year of having the number one pick in the draft to get better. It starts within each of the players themselves, and then gelling as a group that can compete on a high level every night.
"But, that’s all part of growing up as a team and as individual players," Prout continued. "It’s approaching every game with the same mindset. We know how to have success. We know how to beat good teams. We know how to stay in games and how to come back. We have a good goalie, solid defense and our forwards can put the puck in the net. I think that’s what prevailed in the second half of seasons, at least the last few."
This brings us back to the resiliency of this team and the individual pieces that make up the whole of what the Blue Jackets have shown themselves to be in the past. The intangibles of character and personal drive play a major role in what this team is.
"I think it’s the character of this group," said Nick Foligno. "I think every team has good players, but it’s the makeup of those players and the mentality they have. Are we happy that we started off so poorly? No. But, it’s the fight we have in us. The guys have pride in wanting to turn this thing around and realizing we had such a good thing going last year. Seeing it kind of slip away just knocked us into another gear and made us rally that much harder.
"It’s the want and the will of the guys. It’s making it personal. Every guy in here took it personal when we weren’t doing well. We found a way to get out of it together. We don’t have individuals going their separate ways, trying to do things on their own. We’ve pulled together in here and I think that’s made the biggest difference."
Does this mean that they will return to the playoffs this year? The odds are stacked against them, this is a certainty. But, one thing that has been learned from this group of guys is you should never say ‘never’. Somehow, they manage to defy what everyone thinks they will do.
"We’ve dealt with a lot of issues this year that we haven’t dealt with in the past," Todd Richards said. "And I’m talking about the injuries. We’ve grown in confidence because we’ve won some hockey games. It’s a confidence that we can win. And it doesn’t matter who we’re playing, we’ve beat some really good hockey teams, elite teams. It’s about the guys sticking together and using each day to get better."
There are 47 games left to play in the regular season. They play but four games at home this month, so they need to get the job done on the road. Is this an insurmountable task? No. But the reality is that this is not anywhere close to easy. In the words of a goal song from the not-too-distant past, ‘There’s no way but the hard way, so get used to it.’