December, 2013: 11-14-3 25 Points
December, 2014: 11-15-2, 24 Points
At the start of last season, there was optimism surrounding the Jackets, after just missing out on the playoffs on a final-day tiebreaker the season prior. Unfortunately, the start of the 2013/2014 wasn't kind to the team, seeing them sitting near the bottom of the conference in early December. There wasn't really a sense of panic though, because outside of a lopsided loss to the Oilers the team was playing pretty well, and there was a sense that the ship would be righted at any moment. After 28 games, their record was 11-14-3, and they went on a terrific run from that point onward to nail down a playoff spot, taking the Pens to six games before running out of gas.
That playoff series did wonders for the Jackets. The NHL world took notice, and the offseason was full of praise for the up-and-coming Jackets, who many called the "darlings" of the league. Even the team went on record saying that now that the current squad had tasted the playoffs, simply making it was not enough. The focus was now advancing through the postseason and contending for the Stanley Cup. This led to massive expectations being heaped on the team going into this season.
Of course, things went off the rails early. The terrible news about Nathan Horton shook the team. Then the injuries started to pile up, to comical levels. This, combined with lackluster play at times, saw the team crawl out of the gates. Fast forward to today, and the Jackets after 28 games are sitting with a record of 11-15-2, just one point shy of where they were at the same point last year. The difference though, is that due to the expectations for the Jackets to be among the top teams in the league, doom and gloom has surrounded the team. Fans are pissed, executives are publicly reassuring fans that the team won't do anything drastic, and like so many seasons prior, talk of who the Jackets could land in June's draft are at the forefront.
While it's hard to imagine the team going on a spectacular run after another slow start for the third straight year, there's reason for renewed optimism. Aside from Horton, the Jackets are almost fully healthy. Artem Anisimov is out long term, but Nick Foligno has looked great playing in the middle. Mark Letestu will be back soon, which will solidify the fourth line. Ditto for Fedor Tyutin, but his absence has been offset by the contributions of Jordan Leopold and Kevin Connauton.
A sign of the team turning the corner was their ability to steal a win from the Panthers the other day, a game which saw the Jackets badly outplayed. Good teams find a way to win those games though, and combined with a victory over the league-leading Lightning and overtime wins against Metro Division rivals Philadelphia and Washington, we're seeing the team we expected to see.
It's no coincidence that when the projected lineup finally had a chance to take the ice, the team started to win.
It's going to take another crazy run to make the playoffs this season, but if the past five games and the previous two seasons are any indication, buckle up, it's going to be a fun ride.