Blue Jackets, like Maple Leafs, awoke NHL giants

Kevin Hayes and Jimmy Vesey scored in the third period and the New York Rangers defeated the Columbus Blue Jackets.

The first year Sergei Bobrovsky was paid $8.5 million to keep the puck out of the Columbus Blue Jackets‘ net could not have started worse.

The goaltender gave up four goals on opening night of the 2015-16 season and lost. He woke up, allowed another four the next night, got pulled and lost again. In the first six games under his shiny new contract — all regulation loses, only one of them close — he watched 26 pucks zip through him.

“I have zero confidence right now,” Bobrovsky memorably confessed during the Jackets’ abominable fall of 2015, which would lead to a quick-trigger coaching change.

Bobrovsky would wrap 2015-16, paradoxically his most lucrative and most disappointing season, with a .908 save percentage, a mere 15 wins and one lonely shutout.

“I felt a bit that I ran somewhere. Always want to be better,” says Bobrovsky, the Russian’s broken English making all kinds of sense. “But it’s not in a good way. You stretch out yourself too much.”

Bobrovsky trimmed weight over a long summer, working with a new strength coach, Nelson Ayotte, in Austria. More important, he cut out the self-inflicted pressure. A goalie’s Kryptonite.

“I looked around myself and I think I have a great life. I have lots of things to appreciate and be thankful for,” he says. “I just want to feel that way, too.

“You have good life. Just have fun. Enjoy your life. You write your own story.”

As they head into the first of three critical stretch-run meetings with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the 2016-17 Blue Jackets’ story is similar to their opponents’: young lottery team with deadly power play, no-nonsense, Cup-winning coach, and much improved goaltending catches league by surprise in first half of season. Then begins to cool off.

Like the Leafs, the Jackets boast an offence capable of exploding (both teams ranks top six overall in goals per game), a rookie worthy of Calder chatter (albeit only one, defenceman Zach Werenski), and vastly improved special teams. And now, it appears, Mike Babcock is willing to cancel a morning skate, Tortorella style.

Fifty-five games in, there is a major problem for both: No one’s taking ’em for granted anymore. The Leafs are 4-4-2 in their last 10; the Jackets are 4-5-1.

In Ohio, the 2016-17 narrative began when head coach John Tortorella snail-mailed a letter to every one of his charges early in the summer with an old-school message: Arrive to camp ready to work.

“It’s no secret: It was a grind of a training camp,” says Cam Atkinson, one of three Jackets selected to play in the All-Star Game. “In the first half of the season, we were in that much better shape than other teams.”

The Blue Jackets haven’t just surprised this winter; they’ve wowed. A 16-game win streak from Nov. 29 through Jan. 3 featured 14 straight wins from Bobrovksy and game-winners from 10 different goal scorers. The Streak fell one short of the 1992-93 Penguins’ record. Regional TV ratings skyrocketed 110 per cent, the biggest increase in any U.S. team market.

“Everything was going our way. We were getting calls. Refs were giving us power-play time. Pucks were going in. Goalies were making saves,” Atkinson says. “You’ve got to ride that as long as you can.”

With 27 goals, Atkinson, 27, is a late-blooming breakout star. Alexander Wennberg, 22, has been a wonder and should cash in after this breakout contract year (44 points already). Captain Nick Foligno is a candidate for best bounce-back story of the year. Seth Jones is proving to be worth giving up Ryan Johansen. Werensnki should get a few Calder votes. Scott Hartnell went from trade bait and/or buyout candidate to scoring hat tricks. And free agent afterthought Sam Gagner is delivering a better cost-per-point rate than anyone not on an entry-level contract.

So good, those Jackets, they don’t need a morning skate. So good, Bobrovsky started wearing the contested new streamlined goalie pants two months before they became mandatory.

The holiday ended abruptly in January. The streak awoke a giant called The Rest of the League. Since those 16 games of everything turning up Torts, the Blue Jackets are a pedestrian 8-10-1.

“When you go through a 16-game win streak, you feel you’re on top of the world and nothing can go wrong. Then you come back down to Earth,” Jones says. “It’s good to go through a little adversity with such a young team that we have.”

Atkinson notices opponents coming ready for the Jackets now that they’re a legit playoff threat, one that commands attention on both special teams and at both ends of the rink.

“It’s great we’re not the underdog anymore. Teams are starting to show us more respect,” Atkinson says. “We have to embrace that, accept the challenge and be ready to go.”

That means reaching back to basics and paying attention to their structure. Focus on details. Write their story.

“Get back to working hard. We have some pretty good players on our team but not, like, superstars,” Atkinson says. “We’re a blue-collar team.”

For Goalie Bob — the extraordinary talent with the blue-collar nickname — this means busting his butt at the arena, then shedding that intensity with his gear.

“This season especially, it’s more about hard work and rest — that balance,” Bobrovsky says. “It’s mentally. I just enjoy every game. I enjoy every practice. I enjoy every time I’m in the rink.”

At 22, Jones says the coaching staff is doing a smart job helping the young guys find that happy place between confidence and complacency.

“Torts says it to us all the time: You can’t let it get good to us,” Jones says.

“During our streak we were working for everything we got. Yeah, we got bounces here and there, but you create your own bounces with your work ethic.

“We’ve got to get back to that work ethic.”

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