Saturday, February 18, 2017

You're Our Only Hope, Obi Wan Dubinsky

Hmm, Looks like Princess Leia had a tough night.
Reviewing last night's post, it looks like I was a little fired up after the game.  That kind of thing happens with Penguins games.  No matter though, I wanted to take a few moments to talk about Brandon Dubinsky, Boone Jenner, and Cam Atkinson.  Dubi and Boone started slow, and Cam carried the scoring for the line.  However Boone is just playing like a wrecking ball, forechecking with wild abandon, and Dubinsky's play has continued to elevate.  Last night's overtime winner was a solid play from a line that was verging on being trapped on the ice after a long shift, and the Penguins had already made a change.  So a really strong play by Dubinsky, aided and abetted by Cam Atkinson pressure to the net.

So in honor of how Dubinsky is playing, I decided to dig this old picture up.  I've had a lot of fun with it before.  So after two real emotional games, the Jackets have one more tomorrow against the Predators before they get their 5 day break.  Here's hoping that the Jackets can generate the same level of play, and get some payback for the loss in Nashville before the All Star break.

No Goal!!

Dubinsky and Werenski
I resolved early in tonight's hockey game to not throw my hat when the refs waved off a third goal for the Blue Jackets, reasoning that it was a hat trick that did not deserve a hat.  Shockingly, the referees did not wave off the Jackets fourth goal, which resulted in a 2-1 win against the Pittsburgh Penguins in overtime.  I really don't want to dwell on the flimsy excuses the referees used to wave off Blue Jackets goals.  We saw a graphic example of the leagues position on these things by their refusal to discipline Evengi Malkin on his egregious head shot on Blake Wheeler of the Jets.  If it's bad for the champs, it doesn't work for the league.

By the way, once James Wisneiwski is done playing, he should definitely sue the league for a disproportionate enforcement of a rule.  Any lawyer would take that case on spec (i.e. payment upon victory), because it would be so easy to show how Shanahan leveraged that position into president of hockey operations for the Maple Leafs, and how the league has enforced that rule disproportionately.  They made an example of Wiz, so Shanny could get a job.  Malkin leaves his feet for a head shot, and it's 'oh he's a star so no hearing'!   What a bunch of crap, and easy to litigate.  Wiz should get his suspension money back, or the league should force Shanny to bite it and hire Wiz as a scout.  Wiz got an 8 game regular season suspension with his feet on the ice.  Malkin jumped up and targeted the head and they wouldn't even review it.  Any judge is going to give Wiz the benefit of laughing Cal Clutterbuck.  Certainly Josh Anderson is free and clear for the rest of the year, no matter what he does.  Any court room hearing that examines this travesty will result in a loss to the league.  Make it right Malkin.  Feign injury, take two games off, though you should have gotten five, and call it even.  Then move on.

Speaking of moving on, the Jackets prevailed tonight against the Penguins, in spite of the fact that the referees waved off two goals using any pretext they could come up with.  The first one maybe, the second one was waved off on the pretext that the Penguins actually had possession of the puck while Oliver Bjorkstrand was firing it into the net.  What a crock of brown butter.

So if you are the Penguins, what is the worst thing that could happen to you?  I mean, after all, your buddies the referees have bailed you out by waving off two goals!  The hat trick is right there!!  Instead, effing Dubinsky scores the winner against you, and there is no possible pretext for your buddies to bail you out.    Well, you got your charity point, so at present you maintain home ice advantage over a playoff match up that is starting to look inevitable.

Which is what it is all about.  What a fun game, Pittsburgh sucks, and we'll see you in the playoffs, flightless sea birds!


Wednesday, February 15, 2017


Oliver Bjorkstrand
While tonight might have really belonged to Joonas Korpisalo, I have long followed the career of Oliver Bjorkstrand, and his break away goal tonight, his first of the season in the NHL, was a huge goal, and a beautiful snipe.  It was a 'Yuge' game tonight for the Blue Jackets, as they defeated a young and talented Toronto Maple Leafs squad 5-2, including an empty net goal by Matt Calvert.

The Jackets seemed to recognize that if you gave this team any room they were going to burn you, and played a very tight game for most of the night.  Toronto made a push in the third period, but the Jackets contained them.  This is not to say that there were not tense moments in Nationwide Arena tonight.  That was there in abundance down the stretch.  But Korpisalo kept them in the game early, and the team fought hard down the stretch, and they surpassed last year's point total finally.

With Scott Hartnell, a blog favorite, out of the line up on a day to day basis, Coach Tortorella took advantage of the presence of Oliver Bjorkstrand to do some line scrambling.  The biggest questions for Bjorkstrand in the NHL game are his game away from the puck, and I thought tonight he was a heady player in the defensive zone, making sure his positioning was what it should be.  Once when Seth Jones was caught up ice, making the play he should have made, Bjorkstrand was one of the two guys back covering the counter punch by the Leafs.  So I view this game as a good step in his development, but still don't really see Bjorkstrand as a year long impact player until next year.  At that time, someone is really going to have to show something to keep him off the team.  This year he is a bit of a tweener, so the time he gets being 'the man' in Cleveland is great for his development.  So I think his future looks really bright.

Awesome game tonight, well played by the CBJ when they really needed to play a good one.  The Flightless Sea Birds are up next, in town for a Friday night Metro tilt.  Yahoo!!  That ought to be a ton of fun!


Sunday, February 12, 2017

Much Better, But Challenges Loom

The Columbus Blue Jackets played a more complete game last night, eking out a 2-1 win against the Detroit Redwings.  Bobrovsky earned his first star of the game the hard way, turning away many quality shots, and making the big saves when they counted.  He was especially sharp all night long.  So how do we measure "better"?  

It is important to remember that during The Streak, the Jackets were scoring just a touch over 3 goals a game, but at one point were giving up as few as 2.19 goals per game.  To get that goals against number so low, you have to be holding a lot of people to one goal or fewer.  A three goal game, even if you win, will really drag that number up.  So last night, the CBJ held the Red Wings without a goal in 2 periods.  If you look over the last stretch of games (8, 10, take your pick) the Jackets have struggled to keep people off the board in any given period.  That this has coincided with a run of injuries to the defensive corps should really come as no surprise.  Last night, with the top 6 back in the lineup for the first time in a long time, the Jackets returned to their stingy ways.  So to keep your fingers on the pulse going forward, just ask yourself if we gave up any goals in the last period?  If the answer to that is 'no', more often than not, then we are trending in the right direction.

So the Rangers come to town on Monday on our only nationally televised game of the year.  Judging by the last couple of these games, it ought to be a barn burner,  There's likely to be a couple of times when you ask yourself the question above and the answer will be 'yes'.  If we answer 'no' more than once, we got a good chance in that one.  But it will be a 'no lead is safe' game.  The Rangers are nipping at our heels in the standings, and want to push us down into a wild card position.  Pittsburgh is tied with us, and in between those two clubs come the Toronto Maple Leafs with their pack of young stars.  That's a group where you want to establish the pecking order early, so our young team should come to play.  But let's not get ahead of ourselves, the Rangers next.  Since even a 6 goal lead apparently isn't enough on the Rangers, we better get to their goal tenders, and get to them early.  It should be a heckuva game.


Thursday, February 9, 2017

One Team Came to Win, Another Came to Play

Tonight the Vancouver Canucks outplayed the Blue Jackets in a game of meh.  I think Vancouver had lost something like 3 games in a row, and were going to be fairly desperate to reverse that on a long road trip.  The Jackets play 2 games against Vancouver, won one already, and sweeping this series just isn't a big motivator.  The schedule has set the Jackets up to go to war in the Metropolitan Division and in the Eastern Conference down the stretch.  That is their focus.  With a middling Pacific Division Team for an opponent, the Jackets seemed to have a hard time getting their juices flowing.

So it goes.  Make no mistake that Vancouver deserved the win.  I felt they got the bounces, but I also felt that they earned the bounces with their effort.  The Jackets simply did not win many puck battles tonight. So they got ignominiously shut out by a team they probably should beat.  If they bring the same so-so effort to the game Saturday night against Detroit they will get spanked, and it will be time to start getting worried.  If they decide to take exception to the unpunished head shot to Josh Anderson, and come to play, they will be fine, and it will be a really fun game to watch.  Even if they lose, they will be able to say they came to play.  A phrase they cannot really use about tonight's effort.

I have felt that I wanted to see the Jackets stand pat at the trade deadline, and get their change from below, from the AHL.  After tonight, I'm not so sure.  Oliver Bjorkstrand is up from Cleveland.  There are a number of players I think he could have subbed in for and done a better job.  Gagne really stands out to me.  He didn't particularly have a bad game tonight, or one that would stand out as bad, but he has become invisible.  The secondary scoring has dried up.  It costs you nothing to dump Bjorkstrand in at right wing on that 4th line and see what happens.  Hartnell seemed like one of the few players that had it going tonight.  It would be nice to go all Bjork on Detroit.  Just saying.

The Jackets were co-conspirators in tonight's win by Vancouver.  The team that worked hardest won the game.  I'm not saying the Jackets didn't try.  I think they did.  Vancouver tried harder, and got the result they deserved.  They earned the bounces they got.  The line is so fine in the NHL right now.

Query?  Would you dump Jerome Iginla on that fourth line in place of Gagne?  What about a rental defenseman at the deadline?  Some of these things are coming into focus for the Jackets.  Tonight's unsatisfactory result helps to give you clarity.

Overall my take on tonight's game?  That's hockey.  No one goes undefeated in an NHL season.  Every team loses some games.   As long as we finish in that 2 or 3 slot in the Metro, its war with the Penguins in the playoffs.  To me, that's as it should be, and we have to go through the Penguins to get anywhere anyway, so you might as well start out there.  Does the outcome of tonight's game affect that.  No.  But you sure want to go into a series like that playing good hockey.  It would be hard to describe tonight's game by the Blue Jackets in that fashion.


Saturday, February 4, 2017

Running With the Big Dogs

Seth Jones
I was all over the place last night thinking how this blog post should go.  Towards the end of the first period I had "A Tale of Two Defenses" picked out as my title to describe why the Penguins pulled away after scoring 2 goals in the first period.  They finally have their top 6 D-men healthy.  Letang went down right before we played them the first time and Dumoulin suffered a broken jaw; a couple of hits to their top 6 D.  And, of course, now we have injuries to our D corps, and our top 6 are depleted.  I was thinking those injuries would limit our ability to really compete with the elite teams, such as the Penguins.

But a funny thing happened in the second period.  Dubinsky scored a greasy goal to put the Jackets back in the game.  Sure they promptly coughed up another goal, but the CBJ kept at it, tilted the ice, and came up with the third period goals necessary to forge a tie and garner a point.  A tough bounce in overtime and the Jackets lost to the Penguins 4-3.

As I mentioned before, poor Prout has a hard time keeping up when we are playing the elite teams.  I will be interested to see if the same thing is the case with the New Jersey Devils tomorrow night.  We have not played them yet, so I really don't have a good feel for them as a team.  But I get the sense that New Jersey isn't going to try to kill you with speed, and Prouter may feel more comfortable in one of those games.  Plus we are at home, and the CBJ have more control on the match-ups.  But in the Penguins game, the coaches were forced to staple him to the bench, and played with 5 defensemen in the later parts of the game.  At this point the team really seemed to get going.

Pleasingly, Scott Harrington seemed up to the pace last night once he started getting paired with Seth Jones.  Harrington has only played in 10 games this year, and only 35 NHL games overall, but he looks like he is a real NHL defenseman.  No wonder Jarmo wouldn't risk sending him to the AHL, even though we would have been compensated with a 5th round pick.

So what we have learned in these last two road games against the elite of the Metropolitan Division is that if you are crazy enough to roll out a Prout-Harrington pairing, the opposition will load up a line to pin you deep and squeeze a goal out of you because your forwards will be forced to come back in the help defend the goal.  I'm happy to give Prout an A for effort, but like every human he has his limitations.  He attempted to stretch those last night by carrying the puck, but the results weren't good.  It's just a statement of how quickly the league has changed to a bunch of speed demons, especially for defensemen, and Prout is a physical, stay at home defenseman.  The team ended up being better off playing with 5 fast defenseman, a la Joel Quenneville and the Blackhawks.  Quenneville won a Cup by ignoring his bottom pairing defensemen.

So if you are reading this, and you listened to the DKM Hockey podcast (see right column or, you are probably the hockey guy/gal in your office/class, and you are going to be asked the question, "Do the Blue Jackets have what it takes to really compete with the leagues elite?"  And you are going to get those questions with increasing frequency over the upcoming months.  In my opinion, the answer is yes, and I'll tell you why.

First and foremost is the defense.  Well, okay first and foremost is Bob.  But he doesn't score any goals, and you need those to win hockey games.  So back to the defense.  In the space of a little over a year and a half the NHL has become a haven of speed merchants.  Your defense has to able to really skate.  And give Jarmo credit.  When you compare the defense that began 2015-16 to the one that began 2016-17 it has been completely transformed into the prototypical modern NHL defense. Jarmo is aided in this task by having two rookies, Zach Werenski (wow!) and Markus Nutivaara perform at extremely high levels.  Our top 6 D, when healthy, move the puck, transition the puck and more importantly spring the forwards from collapsing defensively so that they can get in on the forecheck.

This was abundantly illustrated last night, as in the first period the forwards were remaining high in the offensive zone launching shots from a distance, because in the face of transition from the Penguins, the third D pair was giving ground, so the forwards had to collapse with them, abandoning the offensive zone.  This results in a lot of 'one and done' shots.  When the coaches started to only put the more mobile defensemen on the ice, they were able to support the forwards in the offensive zone, confident that they could get back in the face of a transition.  Dubinsky's goal was about the third shot the put on Murray, rapid fire from point blank range, the antithesis of one and done.  In spite of giving up another goal, the Jackets game was functioning the way it is supposed to function, and the end result was they were able to tie it up, and put real pressure towards winning it in regulation.  That's how the mobility of the 2016-17 defense makes things work.

One of the other main reasons that I think the team has the wherewithal to 'Run with the Big Dogs' is Alexander Wennberg.  He is quietly transitioning into an elite center in this league.  And though I agree with the DKM boys that picked Bobrovsky as the MVP, my pick is Wennberg.  When you think at this point he has replaced the production of Ryan Johansen, a really good player, it means that functionally the organization got All-Star Seth Jones (what a player!) for free.  Wennberg did not look at all out of place, on the road, in the barn of the Stanley Cup Champions.  And, I think he will continue to improve as the year goes on.

The forward corps is deep, and while it lacks glittering stars, the drop off between the top and the bottom is not really great.  With the fast, mobile defensive corps launching them at the opposition, they are in a position to maximize their abilities, and come at people in waves.  That is what we saw during The Streak.  Since they are not dependent on one or two people for production, you tend to see it out of the line that has the favorable match-ups.

In summary, if you are asked, the Columbus Blue Jackets have what it takes to run with the big dogs.  Lots of hockey yet to play in the regular season.  Tonight's game against the Devils, the first of the year against this team will be interesting.   Part of running with the big dogs is that you get everyone's best shot.  And you need to take that, and handle it.  While the Devils aren't real high in the standings now, they have what it takes to beat you if they are playing their best game.  So after an emotional game last night, how will the Jackets respond to a lesser opponent, albeit on home ice?  (Hint: the fans can help here).  Because we WILL get the Devils best shot.

Two road games against elite teams in the Metropolitan Division, 3 of a possible 4 points.  That kind of performance will take you far.  Should be a great time at Nationwide tonight!  Hope to see you there.


Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Ruminating on the Rangers Game

Dalton Prout
Well, the Rangers went out of their way last night to prove my point in the last post.  They loaded up a speed line against the Prout-Harrington pair to the extent that Brad Shaw had to juggle the pairings.  Dalton Prout is a stout, physical defender, but can't keep up with the speed of some teams.  I don't intend for this to be a Prout bashing session. He has done what he can with the limited ice time he has had this year.  But I would like to point out that if we end up in a playoff series against one of those big heavy teams, like Boston or San Jose, that we seem to struggle with, we may find Prout and Harrington coming to the fore.

Actually, for a guy with darn few NHL games, Harrington has played credibly.  Paired with Seth Jones last night after the pairs juggling by Shaw he acquitted himself well.  And, even though the Rangers loaded up on the Prout-Harrington pair, and pinned them deep a few times in the first period, the Rangers still didn't score.  In the third period outburst by the Rangers, the Jackets got pinned deep by feeble attempts to clear the puck.  That is something that is correctable.  But these Rangers games are going to turn my hair gray before the season is over.  No lead is safe.  Yeesh.

On the great news front, according to Twitter, Markus Nutivaara skated before practice today, then stuck around for the whole practice.  It may be a bit until he is ready to go, but having him back in the lineup would be a big plus.  Who plays the right side on the third pairing is somewhat in question, but that will become clear in time.

It was great to see the Jackets get back in the win column, even though it was a bit hair raising at times.  Next stop Pittsburgh, which should be an interesting measuring stick to see where we are, and how rough this is going to be down the stretch.


Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Confronting Speed at the Blue Line

Markus Nutivaara
For many Blue Jackets fans this last few games since the streak has been hard, as the team is not playing particularly well.  Personally I think this kind of thing is normal after a streak of that magnitude, but there are some underlying issues that erode the teams ability to play the smothering style of defense that they played during the streak.  It is related to the injuries in the defensive corps, and it was illustrated last night very clearly (i.e. even I saw it).

Dalton Prout is a sturdy, defensive defenseman, and I will always love him for that one-punch knock down of Milan Lucic, which settled his hash with the Blue Jackets.  However, even his mother wouldn't call him fast (by NHL standards).  So a good solid depth defenseman.  And in this particular instance it illustrates what the Islanders did to the Blue Jackets last night.

The Islanders scored a couple of goals late in the game by attacking through the neutral zone with speed.  Prout has two options.  First he could confront the speed at the blue line.  If he wins that confrontation, its all good.  However, if he gets beat, the opposing forward is going to make him look like a pylon as he goes flying around him wide.  So Prout exercises his second option.  He gives ground (ice) back into the defensive zone.  The Islanders were coming through the neutral zone so fast that he was giving up a lot of ice so they wouldn't beat him.  This gives the shooter time and space, and the Islanders were using the Jackets defensemen as screens to confuse Bob as they launched their shots.  And NHL shooters with time and space make goalies look bad.

How does this happen?  During the streak, it was near impossible for the opposition to get through the neutral zone.  To illustrate the recent differences, I am going to talk about Markus Nutivaara.  He was a revelation in training camp, jumping over several people on the depth chart, and has had an outstanding rookie season so far.  His primary asset is his speed, and he can flat out fly for a defenseman.  When he confronts someone with speed at the blue line, he has the speed to recover from losing that confrontation.  Prout simply doesn't have that option.

But wait, our offense has dried up too!  Well, what Nutivaara and Jones, and Zach, and Murray are doing is confronting the opponents speed at the offensive blue line, not the defensive blue line.  If Nutivarra gets beat by a play at the offensive blue line, which causes a break away, he has the speed to chase the play down and interfere with the shooter so they don't have a clean shot at Bob.  So on a 50-50 play, Nutivarra can afford to hold the fort at the blue line.  Prout, on the other hand, has to give up the offensive blue line on that 50-50 play, and starts giving ice before the play has exited the offensive zone in order to make sure he at least gets into a defensive position.  This allows for cleaner exits by the opposing team, and all of a sudden the CBJ forwards are trapped deep on the forecheck because we can't hold the offensive blue line with confidence.  With cleaner exits, the opposing team generates more speed, Prout gives more ground, and you get a result like last night.

With our defense healthy, and Nutivarra and Murray playing that third pairing, we have as good a third pair as anyone in the league.  When the other team was trying to make a breakout, they would confront the puck at the offensive blue line (as would Jones and Werenski as well as Johnson and Savard), and those 50-50 plays they won would contribute to increased offensive pressure.  With Prout conceding the 50-50 play up front, the offensive pressure breaks down, and bad things happen.

Prout has played what, four games this year?  He will get better at some of these things, and find ways to do better.  He's a solid NHL defenseman.  But his strength is physicality, and the league is getting faster.  When Nutivarra gets healthy, it will help solidify some of the systems that are breaking down now.

But injuries are part of the gig in the NHL.  That's when your depth is tested.  So we have sagged to a .500 team.  I gotta be true to you folks, that's all I was hoping for at this point in the season before the season started.  I'd be looking for a late playoff run based on my preseason expectations as well, not figuring they would do that in December!  Woot!  16-0 baby!  Ahem.  Sorry.

So the speed of the game is bothering part of our defensive corps right now, but not every team has enough speed to cause that kind of problem.  That will change when defenseman heal.  We were going to lose some games anyway, because this certainly isn't a 136 point team, yet.  So this is a natural process in a long season, tough as it may be to stomach.  Get well fast Markus!!

P.S.  Will everyone please lay off Ryan Murray!  He is a left shot playing the right side for the first time in his career in the toughest league on the planet.  There will be warts!  He is playing on his backhand.  If you feel you need to criticize, okay, but spend a day doing everything with your off hand.  You likely will find it awkward.  Do if for a year, no problem, you get used to it.  He is somewhere in between right now.

These guys have earned a break.  Sneak out of Nashville with a win, and you went .500 after the streak, and you deserve a vacation.


Monday, January 23, 2017

Cam Is Getting Kinda Scary

Cam Atkinson has been on an unbelievable tear lately.  He is playing with supreme confidence, and his goal in overtime against Ottawa was spectacular.  Cam is playing at a point a game clip, which is sort of the semi-official threshold of Wow!  His goal total for last year was 27, which is really solid.  After 46 games he already has 23 goals, eclipsing his totals in 2013-14 and 2014-15. And I think he is playing within himself.  This isn't a lucky shooting streak, this is Cam at the top of his game.

Most importantly, Cam is learning to be "the man" at crunch time. In the 2013-14 playoff series against the Penguins the Blue Jackets were eliminated in six games.  At the end of game 6 I longed for the recently traded Marion Gaborik to be coming down the ice with the puck on his stick.  I wanted someone who is truly dangerous and capable of generating a real wicked shot.  Well in the 2016-17 playoffs, Cam needs to be that man and I think he is growing into the role.  Which is really cool to see, when you get right down to it.

Look Cam.  You are an All-Star in my book.  No doubt.  But its a break!  Take some time off to recharge, and come back ready for the assault on the 2016-17 playoffs.  We are playing Metro games the rest of the way pretty much.  The preliminaries are starting here.  Do you play a wild card, a team that's playing hot, or do you get the Penguins, or the Capitals??  No easy road forward, but lots of questions out there yet.

The depth of the organization is being tested for the first time this season.  So far it is holding up okay.  But honestly, I had real intestinal discomfort with the image of Zach Werenski laying on the ice.  Fortunately he is okay.  But he gets a 3-4 day break with the All-Star game.  Important heal up time!

The intensity of the play across the NHL picks up after the All-Star break.  It is one of those ratchet periods in a season.  I hope the Jackets come back rested, renewed and ready for the drive to the playoffs.

If the Jackets can win their next two games (not at all necessary), they will equal the number of points they had last year before the All-Star break.  That's pretty cool.  They have performed well, but there will be sterner demands ahead.  I really believe these players are up to the task.  This is going to be a lot of fun.


Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Dark Blue Jackets Definitive History of the CBJ: Part IVA; #Unsustainabowl

The first stage has dropped away from the Atlas V Rocket that is the Columbus Blue Jackets.  We are in that odd space in time where we are waiting for the second stage to ignite, and the heights it will propel us to are still unknown.  But we got a heckuva lift from that first stage.

The engineers at CBJ central packed that sucker full of an undefeated December and an NHL record.  When you mix those two unstable compounds, well BOOM!

As our brains try to recover from the G forces they have been subjected to, we will come to realize that some losses are an inevitable part of that drifting time while we wait for the second stage to ignite.  Will adding a little Korpisalo be the ingredient we need?  This remains to be seen.

This part of the blog is intended to chronicle the journey of the Columbus Blue Jackets.  When last we left, we were trying to determine the significance of Joonas Korpisalo’s run in goal for the 2015-16 CBJ.  Ironically, at the mid-point of the 2016-17 season we are in the same position, but not the same place.  As I write this the Blue Jackets have fallen out of first place in the NHL for the first time since before Christmas.  This in itself is worthy of note. 

But this iteration of the Blue Jackets is intent on larger goals, while having also accomplished other things of historic significance.  It is indeed a rich time to be writing about Blue Jackets history.
A short list of the team’s accomplishments in the first half of the season is as follows:

A.      Second longest win streak in NHL history, 16 games.
B.      First time in major North American Sports where two professional teams with win streaks of 12 games or more have faced off against one another, when the Jackets played the Minnesota Wild.  The Jackets prevail in that New Year’s Eve game.  The previous best was two 11 game streaks playing each other in the NBA (as cited by the Columbus Dispatch).
C.      Undefeated in the month of December.

The things that flow from this success are many, including a prolonged run in first place overall in the NHL. 

Setting The Stage

Following the disastrous campaign of 2015-16 the consensus for the Blue Jackets was a near bottom finish in the NHL.  The view of the team was that they were hamstrung by bad contracts, and there was a vocal contingent of the media that was loudly trumpeting that John Tortorella would be the first coach fired in the 2016-17 season.  Instead, Torts is going to the All Star game because his team has the highest winning percentage in the league. 

The only move of substance prior to the beginning of training camp was the acquisition of free agent Sam Gagner for near the league minimum to help shore up the center position.  In addition, the team had several veterans, some with pretty good pedigrees on Player Try Out (PTO) agreements in camp.  This reinforced the view from the outside that this wasn’t a very good team. 

Instead of nearly washed up veterans making the team, the thing that emerged from Tortorella’s brutal (but advertised ahead of time) training camp was a cadre of young players pushing veterans down the depth chart, or out of the league.  The Jackets routinely looked slow and ineffective in preseason games because they were skating so hard in training camp.  Their preseason record was poor compared to last year, and it seemed as if some of the fatigue carried over into the first two games of the season.

The Start

The 2016-17 Blue Jackets started the season much like the 2015-16 CBJ, by coughing up a lead in the third period to lose the opener, this time to the Bruins instead of the Rangers.    After losing the second game to the Sharks, certain people, such as this writer, were in panic mode with the thought that a repeat of 2015-16 might be in the offing.  As a result of the schedule, the CBJ got their 5 day break early in the season after those two games.  John Tortorella used that time as a mini-training camp to solidify systems.  You can talk about systems all you want, but waiting at the end of the 5 day hiatus were the powerful Chicago Blackhawks, followed by a road trip to the West Coast.
Shockingly, the Blue Jackets beat the Blackhawks, 3-2, and headed out west.  First stop was Dallas, a preseason pick to have a fine season, but the CBJ jumped them, and Bobrovsky garnered his first shutout of the year in the 3-0 win.  Continuing west to play the LA Kings, a game which the CBJ lost in overtime to secure a point, the Jackets had back to back games against San Jose and Anaheim.  Losing to San Jose again, and thankfully closing out that season series, the CBJ beat Anaheim 4-0, erupting for 4 goals in the first period, and shutting them down to earn Bob his second shutout of the road trip.  This allowed the Jackets to come back from the west coast, and end October with a credible .500 record at 3 wins-3 losses and 1 OT loss (3-3-1), which gave them 7 points.  No need to compare points to the previous year, as the Jackets had not yet won a game in 2015-16 at this stage of the season.

As November rolled around, the Jackets continued to hover around the .500 mark, but with some unusual signs emerging.  They beat Dallas at home in the return game for that season series, sweeping the two games with Dallas.  One of the more unusual games played in Nationwide Arena was next, as the Blue Jackets faced a hot Montreal Canadiens team that was on a 9 game point streak.  The CBJ curb stomped the Habs, scoring 3 goals in the first period, 5 goals in the second period, and 2 goals in the third period to beat them 10-0.  In one of the strangest events I ever witnessed at a CBJ hockey game, late in the third period, with the Jackets leading 9-0, the crowd was chanting “We want 10, we want 10!!” so Josh Anderson obliged the home fans to set the final score. 

The next night the Jackets traveled to St. Louis, where they lost 2-1 in OT, then came back home and beat Anaheim in OT, before traveling to play Boston, where they lost their second game of the year to the Bruins , 5-2.  The Jackets then went on a small four game winning streak by beating St. Louis, Washington and the Rangers at home, and the Capitals again on the road (and really pissing off Barry Trotz), before falling to Colorado at home in overtime.  Calgary beat the Jackets 2-0 in the next game at home, before they traveled to Florida for the back to back with Tampa Bay and the Panthers.  The Jackets won the game against the Bolts, but lost to Florida in overtime the next night.  Then the Jackets came back home and beat Tampa Bay 5-1 to close out the month of November.  As a result of all of this good play, the Jackets went 9-2-3 in November, leaving them 12-5-4 overall, with 28 points. 

This is a very nice start for the CBJ, and positions them well for the remainder of the season.  The national media is disappointed that Tortorella has not yet been fired, and is quick to point out that the CBJ can obviously not sustain this type of performance, with their scorching hot powerplay and excellent save percentage by Bob combining to give them a PDO over 100 (PDO is adding shooting percentage to save percentage), which means the pundits think this is all an illusion that will horrifyingly crash down in flames. 

Tragically for the CBJ, there is ample historical precedent for the team to horrifyingly crash down in flames in December.  In this space I have called it the December swoon, one of the best examples being the 2009-10 CBJ, which despite a hot start lost 8 straight in December to ultimately cost Ken Hitchcock his job.  However, the 2016-17 CBJ opted for another strategy.  They stomped on the gas.

The Streak

Beginning with the last game of November, a 5-1 win over Tampa Bay, the Columbus Blue Jackets launched on a historic run of winning, the likes that this franchise has never seen, and the NHL has seen only once before.  My own observation at the beginning of this time was my take away from the Bolts game.  I thought the CBJ had their way with the Lightening, and I wanted to see how they would react to some adversity.   They got some of that pretty quickly, traveling out to Colorado, and surrendering a 2 goal first period lead in the second period before Boone Jenner won it in the third.  The next night they went to Phoenix, where the CBJ poured 60 shots at Mike Smith, the Coyotes goal tender, but had to come from behind to tie the game and send it to the shootout where Curtis McElhinney prevailed over the exhausted Smith.  Then the CBJ and the Yotes got together in Nationwide Arena two days later and the Jackets won a more convincing 4-1 game.
After a couple of day break, the Jackets traveled to Detroit and won 4-1, before returning home to beat the Islanders 6-2.  Then they had a road trip to Northwestern Canada, where they beat Edmonton 3-1, Calgary 4-1, and Vancouver in OT 4-3.  Sweeping a Western Canada road trip is no easy thing to do.  Then the Jackets returned home to Nationwide arena, and beat the LA Kings in a shootout to split the season series with the Kings, followed by a 7-1 thrashing of the Penguins, and eking out a 2-1 win against a Montreal team that was unhappy with their earlier treatment.  This got the CBJ to the Christmas Holiday break riding a 12 game winning streak, and allowed them to ascend to first place overall in the NHL standings, an unprecedented achievement for the franchise to date.
By mid-December some of the pundits predictions of doom had started to turn to grudging admiration of the Jackets by virtue of what they had earned.  After the Christmas holiday, the media recognition started to snowball into a huge circus. 

After Christmas, the Jackets beat Boston 4-3, then traveled to Winnipeg and beat the Jets 5-3.  This set the stage for another historic moment in this run, as the Blue Jackets brought their 14 game winning streak to Minnesota, to play the Wild on a New Years Eve clash of streaking teams.  The Wild brought their own streak of 12 consecutive wins to the game, making this a historic confrontation.  For the first time in North American major professional sports history, 2 teams with winning streaks of 12 or more games were going to play each other with their respective streaks on the line (as reported by the Columbus Dispatch). 

In the run-up to this game, the Minnesota Wild had received a roughly equal amount of criticism about their ability to sustain the level of performance they were showing.  Since both teams had been repeatedly told by national pundits that their performance was unsustainable, the New Year’s Eve matchup was dubbed “the unsustainabowl”, a clash of two teams that were not supposed to be where they were. 

In front of a playoff like atmosphere, the Jackets jumped out to a 3-1 lead, and ended up winning the game 4-2 to push their winning streak to 15 games, and to tie for the second longest winning streak in NHL history.

This win allowed the Jackets to also go UNDEFEATED in the month of December an amazing accomplishment, allowing them to finish the calendar year with 56 points, compared to the 72 points that they achieved in all of 2015-16. 

In their next game, the CBJ faced a talented young Edmonton Oilers team who vowed to break the Jackets streak.  The Blue Jackets won that home game 3-1 to give themselves sole possession of the second longest winning streak in NHL history.

Next, they would go to Washington to play the Capitals and see if they could tie the longest win streak in NHL history set by the 91-92 Penguins of Jaromir Jagr and Mario Lemieux.  Instead, it was Washington’s night, and they skated away with a 5-0 win to finally break the Blue Jackets winning streak.  But sole possession of the second longest winning streak in NHL History, 16 games, belongs to the Columbus Blue Jackets.  For the first time the franchise splashes its name across the record books in a significant and positive way.

Since that time, some of the stresses of the streak have emerged, and Bobrovsky has had to fight off a significant illness.  The team has been playing .500 hockey as they try to put The Streak behind them.  The media circus has packed its tents and gone elsewhere chasing news, and the team has to settle down to the task of securing advantageous position in the playoffs.
In addition, the team has finally gone down a path it thought it would have to walk much sooner in the year, and Curtis McElhinney was put on waivers after a late collapse against the New York Rangers, and Anton Forsberg was elevated to the NHL club.  CMac was claimed by Toronto, and has already won a game for them.

In the meantime, Forsberg had one shaky outing, and was sent down.  Korpisalo looks to be the guy with a leg up on the back up competition, and has gone 1-1 so far.  We need a winning backup down the stretch here.
So much has happened this year, putting this history off until the summer was just not an option.  And there will be much more of a story to tell, as a playoff run seems certain for this club, barring utter disaster.

Hope Is Not A Strategy

Before I wind this down, I want to take a moment to acknowledge the passing of Jeff Little, a long time Jackets fan, and a gifted writer.  Jeff lately wrote for our colleagues over at The Cannon, and had amazing analytical ability on top of his gifts as a writer.  Jeff’s writing often shed light on the baffling twists and turns of the Blue Jackets early years, and it was he who coined the phrase “hope is not a strategy”. 

Jeff’s insight will be sorely missed, along with his wit and wisdom.  My only solace is that the Columbus Blue Jackets sat in first place in the NHL at the time of his passing, a phenomenon that must have been pleasing to him.  We will keep you in our minds and our hearts Jeff.

Interim Summation

So, we have had to delve into the history of the Blue Jackets at an unlikely point of the season, but the need to recap this first half was overwhelming.  There is a long journey yet ahead of these young Blue Jackets, and many miles to go before they sleep.  But it will be a lot of fun!!