Columbus Blue Jackets center Ryan Johansen (19) celebrates with teammate Brandon Dubinsky (17) after scoring the game winning goal during the shootout period of an NHL hockey game against the New York Rangers Monday, Jan. 6, 2014, in New York. The Blue Jackets won the game 4-3 in a shootout. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
COLUMBUS, Ohio - The Columbus Blue Jackets were excited that Matt Calvert—their pesty, pesky forechecking forward—was close to returning from a shoulder injury.
Then, as he was going through his final practice before coming back for the game against Carolina on Friday night, another teammate went down.
Blake Comeau, who has logged long and hard minutes all season, hit the boards awkwardly during practice Thursday and had to be helped off the ice. Doctors were evaluating just how seriously he was hurt.
"It seems like when one guy comes back, another guy falls," forward Cam Atkinson said later.
After a first half of the season in which they've played without many of their top players for long stretches, the Blue Jackets are as healthy as they've been all season.
Vezina Trophy-winning goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, who missed 14 games with a strained groin, is back. Winger Nathan Horton, a prized off-season free-agent signing who sat out the first three months after shoulder surgery, is finally seeing his first action in a Columbus sweater. And Calvert was activated Thursday.
The NHL does not keep official stats on man-games lost, although the teams do.
The Blue Jackets have lost 186 man-games this season to injury, which puts them fourth in the league (Pittsburgh leads with 253).
But it's not how many Blue Jackets players have not been able to dress so much as who they are.
Marian Gaborik, the team's biggest scoring threat, missed 17 games with a sprained knee and in his first game (and fourth shift) back sustained a broken collarbone. He'll be out for at least another month, maybe longer.
Calvert missed 19 games, came back for 14, and then was sidelined for eight more before his return. Brandon Dubinsky, along with Calvert perhaps the most hard-driving Blue Jacket, missed six games with a tweaked knee. Jared Boll, the player with the team the longest, could miss the rest of the season after surgery to repair a torn tendon in his ankle.
Instead of folding due to all those injuries, however, the Blue Jackets have hung in there. Through Wednesday they were just five points out of third place in the Eastern Conference's Metropolitan Division.
"You watch most games, we're right there," Calvert said. "It's just going to take that extra little effort."
In last year's lockout-shortened season, the Blue Jackets were dead last in the entire NHL at 5-12-2 before closing with a 19-5-5 rush that put tied them for the final playoff spot in the West. They lost a tie-breaker.
There's a feeling this season that they've weathered the storm and may be in for another late rally.
"It's all the same guys here except for one or two," said 21-year-old centre Ryan Johansen, who has blossomed to pick up 16 goals and 16 assists so far. "We know we've got it in us. Those things are all in play. I'm excited for the upcoming couple of months and what our team can do."
But some of the veterans caution that nothing is guaranteed. Last year's spurt doesn't mean anything this time around unless the effort and intelligence is repeated.
"What happened last season is history," said Bobrovsky, who is 11-11-2 with a 2.72 goals-against average and a .910 save percentage. "Nobody thinks about that. Most of the guys have already forgotten it. We live now and we have to play now."
It was two years ago Thursday that Todd Richards took over as head coach when Scott Arniel (45-60-18 in a year and a half) was fired. Richards has gone 61-58-13 since.
He declines any praise for his team's spunkiness.
"There's been adversity, but I still think we've let some points get away," he said. "It's not so much patting ourselves on the back and saying, 'Well, we've had a lot of stuff thrown at us. We've dealt with it and we're OK.' To me, you still have to find a way."
Richards said the NHL's best teams know precisely what it takes to win. The Blue Jackets, among the youngest teams in the league, are still trying to figure that out.
"Part of the growing is getting them to understand what it takes to win on a consistent basis—whether you have the injuries or not," he said.
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