Bob’s back, and the Columbus Blue Jackets look determined to once again be the best second-half team in hockey.
The Jackets are the NHL’s hottest squad right now, having downed the Philadelphia Flyers 5-2 on Thursday night for their eighth straight win. That pushed Columbus—which sat second-last in the Metropolitan Division just 20 days ago—into third place amongst its Metro peers, meaning the club currently holds one of eight coveted playoff spots in the Eastern Conference.
The winning streak started in game 43 of 82 for Columbus, and this isn’t the first-time we’ve seen Ohio’s boys make a second-half push.
At the midway point of last year’s truncated 48-game season, the Jackets sat dead last in the Western Conference. Then Sergei Bobrovsky—the goalie they call “Bob”—caught fire and Columbus finished with 55 points, same as the eighth-place Minnesota Wild. The Jackets, however, missed making the playoffs for just the second time in franchise history on the basis of having fewer non-shootout victories than the Wild.
Bobrovsky is the most obvious link between last year's success and this season's renaissance. After struggling to find his form early on, then missing a dozen games in December with a groin strain, Bobrovsky is once again playing like the guy who won the Vezina Trophy last year. He returned from injury Jan. 6 and made 40 saves in a shootout victory over the New York Rangers that kicked off the Jackets' current winning run. The next time out he blanked the Carolina Hurricanes and sports a .936 save percentage during his past seven outings, all wins, of course.
But while last year's terrific stretch really was based on Bob's superhuman play, there's more than one bright spot in Columbus right now. Start with the breakout year from six-foot-three centre Ryan Johansen. The 21-year-old leads the Jackets with 19 goals and 37 points in 50 games, making good on the potential that saw him drafted fourth overall in 2010. Rookie blueliner Ryan Murray, taken second overall in 2012, has seven assists during the eight-game winning streak and could end up close to a 40-point season while playing 20 minutes of solid defence every night.
Bobrovsky, Johansen and Murray may be the team's holy trinity for years to come, but there's no shortage of productive, prickly support. Newcomer Nathan Horton signed a big free-agent contract in the off-season and, after recovering from shoulder surgery, has seven points in 10 games with his new club. Other forwards like Brandon Dubinsky, Nick Foligno and Boone Jenner give Columbus ample bite up front, while veteran D-man James Wisniewski has been paired with Murray and sits just outside the top 10 scorers at his position with 31 points.
In 2013, only five teams scored fewer goals-per-game than the Jackets. This season, only five clubs are outscoring Columbus, which is averaging more than four tallies per contest on the eight-game run—and that's without Marian Gaborik, who is sidelined with a broken collarbone.
Tally it all up and it's easy to see why the Jackets could soon transition from second-half wonder to team for all seasons.