While Ohio State’s men’s basketball team seems to have forgotten how to win games, Columbus’ professional hockey team has decided to stop losing.
The Blue Jackets are the NHL’s hottest team, having tallied seven straight victories after a 5-3 win over the Los Angeles Kings in Columbus Tuesday night. They have risen from being a team that looked to be on its way to another underwhelming season following a 5-10-0 start all the way to becoming one that is currently in contention to make the playoffs after this franchise-best winning streak.
It’s not completely luck, a beneficial schedule or even simply playing over their heads. They are doing it the old-fashioned way, using an excellent penalty kill, some of the best 5-on-5 offense in the NHL and fantastic goaltending to close out games.
That goaltending comes courtesy of 2013 Vezina trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky, who has started six of the seven games on this winning streak. Bobrovsky got off to a mediocre start to the year by his standards, but since returning Jan. 6 from a groin injury to play against the New York Rangers — a game ending in the first of the seven wins comprising the streak — he has been a force in the crease.
But it has been the offense that has truly been the Jackets’ strength in the new year. The continued offensive firepower of centers Ryan Johansen and Brandon Dubinsky is converging with the midseason resurgence of defenseman Jack Johnson at just the right time. Johnson, whose disappointing first few months to the season likely led to his being excluded from the United States’ Olympic roster, has been playing with a chip on his shoulder since the Sochi selections were announced. In addition to notching five points in his last five games, Johnson has also been playing improved defense in front of Bobrovsky.
The main cog on offense, however, has been right wing Nathan Horton. Horton, who sat out the three months of the season with a shoulder injury, has been everything coach Todd Richards could have hoped for when he was signed to a seven-year $37.1 million contract in July. Since making his Jackets debut Jan. 2, the team is 8-1-0, with much of the credit going to the point production and leadership Horton brings.
This dominant Jackets run has been a pleasant surprise. But it was not completely crazy to think a postseason appearance could be possible before this year’s campaign had even begun, given the team’s 24-17-7 performance in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season that captured the attention of many fans. Now that they have thrust themselves into the playoff mix again, it is time for a franchise that has yet to win a playoff game since their 2000 inaugural season to start dreaming big.
If the playoffs began today, the Jackets would be the second of two Eastern Conference wild card teams and would have a first-round date with the Pittsburgh Penguins, against whom they are 0-4-0 this season.
That is why the Jackets must now set their sights on capturing one of the top three spots in the Metropolitan Division, which are currently occupied by the Penguins, the Rangers and the Philadelphia Flyers in that order. If they can take over one of those spots in the standings and secure a more favorable first round matchup, it is very possible that they could not only win their first playoff game but also emerge victorious from a series. As of Wednesday evening, the CBJ are just three points back of the Rangers and two behind the Flyers and are slated to play the latter at Nationwide Arena Thursday night.
It is time for Columbus to start embracing the Jackets, the best sports team the city has going for it when football season is over. They currently rank 28th in average attendance, according to ESPN. While the fans at Nationwide Arena can be very loyal and passionate, nothing could top the atmosphere of a capacity sold-out crowd cheering on their team in a huge game.
The Jackets appear to be going places this season, and I implore you to “Join the Battle” for these last 33 games and enjoy the ride.