Don’t look now, but…on second thought, go ahead and look now – look at the Columbus Blue Jackets, present-day kickers of ass and takers of names. They’ve lost just once in January; they’re sniffing around second place in the Metro Division; and they’ve won a franchise-record seven in a row, including Tuesday’s 5-3 victory over the L.A. Kings.
There is no hotter team in the NHL than the Jackets – and they’re on this roll not just because of the play of star goalie Sergei Bobrovsky (who has won eight straight). They’re doing it with an offensive attack that doesn’t require a marquee superstar to operate.
Prior to the season, the closest thing Columbus had to a true star was Marian Gaborik, but he’s been sidelined since late December with a broken collarbone. Perhaps it’s mere coincidence the Jackets began their hot streak when Gaborik was hurt – they’re 11-3-0 since that point, after starting the season 14-7-4 – but perhaps it’s not. Maybe they’ve come together knowing there’s no Sidney Crosby around to be their shepherd through a valley of darkness.
They need goals by committee to support Bobrovsky’s stellar work and the Kings game was a perfect example. Veteran R.J. Umberger led Columbus’ scorers with a pair of goals, but the other three came from (a) one young star in the making (Ryan Johansen); (b) their prime off-season acquisition (Nathan Horton), and (c) one of the key pieces from the Rick Nash trade (Artem Anisimov). The Blue Jackets usually don’t spring to mind when you think of the NHL’s top offensive teams, but they’re eighth in the league this season in goals-per-game (2.84). In this current win streak, they’ve scored at least three goals in every game and have averaged 4.28 a night.
As it is with every team, the Jackets aren’t perfect. Their defense and special teams are merely middling and they’re only a bad week or two away from being back in the pack of teams looking at a playoff spot from the outside.
Still, take a good look at where they are as the Olympic break looms: they’re two points behind Philadelphia for third place in the Metro (with Columbus having a game in hand) and three points behind the New York Rangers (with the Jackets having three games in hand) for second place. They’re not the flashiest team, nor the most skilled. But they’re the team that currently is most comfortable in their identity.
In 2009, I infamously bet against the Jackets making the playoffs and had to wear Civil War gear to one of their post-season games. This year, I’d never make that wager.
In fact, it’s now a safer, smarter bet to bank on Columbus’ second playoff appearance in franchise history being a reality come mid-April.