Now that’s the way to end a near-record-breaking win streak.
If the Columbus Blue Jackets were going to lose – and eventually, they were going to lose – getting blasted on the road by the kind of team they’re going to have to beat to make a run at the Stanley Cup this spring was the way to do it.
Undoubtedly, John Tortorella would agree. A 5-0 drubbing by the Washington Capitals in D.C. on Thursday means one thing to a veteran head coach like Tortorella.
He’s got the attention of his players again.
See, no matter how good the Blue Jackets were in winning 16 straight, and they were fantastically good, bad habits were sneaking into their game. That’s what happens to any team in this situation. Shortcuts, long shifts, neutral ice turnovers – those are things that don’t come back and bite you when you’re riding high like the Jackets were, but they do when the puck starts bouncing the other way.
For a coach, there’s not much you can do to begin to repair those substandard areas until the team loses. Then the work begins anew.
You can bet that’s the message Tortorella will be delivering following the loss. It was fun while it lasted boys but the way we lost shows we have a lot of work to do.
After all, the Jackets really didn’t lose anything significant Thursday. Just Game 37 of an 82-game schedule. It would have been nice to break the record for consecutive victories, sure, but nothing more than that.
It’s odd but true, let’s not forget, that incredible hockey streaks only sometimes mean something in terms of capturing a championship.
In the 1979-80 season, the Philadelphia Flyers stitched together a spectacular 35-game unbeaten streak and didn’t win the Cup. The 1992-93 Pittsburgh Penguins hold the record the Jackets were trying to break with 17 consecutive victories, and the Pens were upset in the second round by the New York Islanders. The next fall, the Toronto Maple Leafs set a record by winning their first 10 games of the season and made it to the Final Four, but no further.
The significance of this Columbus streak was that it established the Jackets as a possible contender in the Eastern Conference but no more than that. It showed the potential of this group of players and what a wildly productive power play and top-notch goaltending can do for a hockey team. It showed that Cam Atkinson really is a force to be dealt with, that Zach Werenski is fully capable of quarterbacking an NHL power play, and that Columbus has more depth than anyone thought it had.
But as soon as Brandon Dubinsky coughed up the puck in the Columbus zone to allow Andre Burakovsky to put the Caps ahead 4-0 in the second period, it was clear that all the good luck and PDO in the world wasn’t going to save the Jackets on this night, and that it will be the next 45 games that will really tell us something about this team.
We know that they have nothing like the talent level of the Pittsburgh team whose record they were trying to break, a Penguins squad that included four 100-point scorers in Mario Lemieux, Ron Francis, Rick Tocchet, and Kevin Stevens, and stars like Jaromir Jagr, Joe Mullen, Larry Murphy, and Tom Barrasso.
Right now, the 5-foot-8 Atkinson, a 27-year-old late bloomer, is the best Columbus attacker with 38 points in 37 games.
What Columbus does have, however, is excellent depth. Twelve players have five goals or more and there’s a balance to the four lines Tortorella sends out every night. There’s useful size up front and on the back end and excellent goaltending in Sergei Bobrovsky, a former Vezina Trophy winner. The Seth Jones-for-Ryan Johansen deal, as of today, looks like it has tilted in Columbus’s favour.
The power play, until it fizzled with an 0-5 performance against the Caps, had been absolutely lethal, producing more than you would expect with a No. 1 group featuring Atkinson, Werenski, Nick Foligno, Sam Gagner, and Alexander Wennberg.
The challenge for Tortorella now is to convince his group that the streak wasn’t a fluke but a demonstration of capability. The Jackets have 11 games in 20 days before the all-star break as their schedule starts to get busier and they’ve made themselves a target by putting together that 16-game run.
Really, now that it’s all over, we’re still not exactly sure how good this Columbus team is, other than to say you can’t stack that many wins together in this league unless you’ve got some really good things happening with your roster. So far, Jackets fans seem to be taking a wait-and-see attitude, with the club 26th in NHL attendance.
That should start to improve with the Ohio State football season now over. What we do know is that in 15 seasons, Columbus has yet to win a playoff series, and 13 other times the club missed the playoffs entirely.
In other words, the 16-game streak was nice and all, but it doesn’t change the fact that this hockey club has never won much of anything. Tortorella, an experienced, hardnosed coach, will be reminding them of that, you can bet.
The streak is over. Respect has been won across the league.
Let the real work begin now.