How is this happening? How have the Columbus Blue Jackets, the team that was once the odds-on favorite to finish last in this lockout-impacted NHL season suddenly started looking like the team from the first (and classic) movie “Major League”? Does this group have the locker room equivalent of JoBu? No, and it wouldn’t work anyway, as Pedro Cerrano found out after some intense introspection.
This is most assuredly not about superstition or voodoo. This is about slowly, methodically and relentlessly developing a style of play that works. It’s about cleaning things up in the defensive zone, having a goaltender that’s playing like a true number one, and working hard each and every shift. It’s been a sweet evolution of the team’s style for Columbus forward Derek MacKenzie, who thrives on a defense-first brand of hockey and realizes good defense starts with reliable goaltending.
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“I think we’ve eliminated so many of those little things in our defensive coverage, and it’s just been so nice to see (Blue Jackets goalie) Bob (Sergei Bobrovsky) kind of step in here and complement all the things the guys have been doing in terms of working hard,” said MacKenzie. “He’s as hard a worker as anyone, so he fits in really well with everyone in here. It adds quite a bit of confidence to everybody knowing he has your back, and he’s doing everything he can to keep us in the game and not give up that bad one.”
Aside from last Tuesday night’s veritable goal-fest, a 4-3 regulation win over the Nashville Predators at Nationwide Arena, the Blue Jackets have been feasting on really tight, low-scoring games to work their way back steadily into the playoff race. MacKenzie thinks that game was an aberration from the style that has helped Columbus move up so dramatically in the Western Conference standings.
“I think what you see from us usually is a pretty structured, flowing game, which doesn’t have a lot of run-and-gun in it but has a lot of consistency in it,” the Ontario native explained. “When you put those two things together, I think what you see is our team not giving up a ton of chances – granted there have been some nights when Bob has had to make some big saves – but for the most part we’ve kept those chances down and taken opportunities to get chances and score goals when we’ve had to. Whether it’s been a big play with someone coming back or blocking a shot or Bob stopping it, we’ve found a way.”
That’s what good teams do: they find a way. That was no more evident than it was in the recent 1-0 shootout win over the Phoenix Coyotes at Nationwide Arena. The team didn’t have its usual reserve of energy playing in its ninth game in 16 days, but buoyed by the goaltending of Bobrovsky and the shootout skills of Artem Anisimov and Mark Letestu, the Blue Jackets found a way. Even Tuesday’s win over the arch-rival Predators was a prime example of a good team doing what it takes to win. There were stretches of that game in which the Blue Jackets played extremely well and other stretches in which they strayed from the formula that has led to so much success of late. But the team prevailed, despite some slips along the way. MacKenzie is quick to point out this is very much a work in progress for Columbus.
“There’s no doubt we don’t think things are picture-perfect here,” he acknowledged. “We think we’ve made one small step to getting to .500 (12-12-6 after the home win over Nashville). That’s not anything to go crazy over, but it’s an indication that we’re getting better. Obviously, you’re not going to win too many games 1-0 in a shootout all year long. I know we’ve been working hard on the power play, and I think collectively we can all be better offensively. So, we don’t want to give anything up, but we certainly need to score some goals.”
This team is truly evolving in the right way. These guys are committed with their work ethic every night, they’ve tightened things up considerably in their own zone (with a huge assist from Bobrovsky), and they have lately taken precious few penalties, another sign of hard work and discipline. And if they can find the back of the net as they did against Nashville on a more regular basis, they may well be looking down at the Western Conference playoff line in the very near future.