The 2017-18 Columbus Blue Jackets might end up in the playoffs, in spite of the road many thought it would take to get there. Instead of a potentially dangerous and powerful offense, scoring goals has been among the clubs' Achilles heel — 2.60 GF/GP (27th). Instead, goaltending and defense — 2.73 GA/GP (8th) — have propped the Jackets up all season long.
You know what other team struggled offensively, but was led by stellar goaltending and defense?
The Los Angeles Kings of the 2011-12 season.
They were next-to-last, 29th in the league, with 2.29 goals-per-game throughout the regular season. In the playoffs, they ranked third-best with 2.85 goals-per-game, though the two clubs ahead of them played less than half of the Kings' 24 games as they essentially cruised to the cup.
Three players had north of 50 points, and only Anze Kopitar had more than 70. He was also the teams’ goals leader with 25. As an eight seed, few could have predicted the improbable, ensuing stretch of 16 wins in 20 games to capture the Cup.
In 2013-14, the Champion Kings, again, ranked towards the cellar in GF/PG (26th, 2.41) before leading the playoffs with 3.38 per game. That year’s team was better, in terms of wins and 100 points. Still, they relied on their defense and Quick, as the Kings were No. 1 in goals allowed per game. That year’s club only had two players with 50 or more points.
Obviously, this doesn’t mean the Jackets are suddenly going to crash the playoffs and turn into the offensive juggernaut that we may have expected prior to the season. As everyone spins their heads trying to put the finger on the pulse of this year’s Jackets team (and you know I’ve tried: Blue Jackets’ Inconsistencies Prelude Big Decisions, Thoughts and Feelings on the Columbus Blue Jackets, Blue Jackets Must use Tough Stretch to Their Advantage, Staying Even-keeled With These Blue Jackets) one thing couldn’t be clearer.
Sergei Bobrovsky is forced to stand on his head. Every. Single. Night.
Columbus has just 12 wins since New Year’s, and in the last 14-consecutive wins since just before Christmas, the Jackets have limited their opponent to two-or-fewer goals. Such a streak dates all the way back to Dec. 14 when they beat the Islanders 6-4.
“Bob” has limited the opponent to two or fewer goals in 23 of Columbus’ 29 wins this season. Joonas Korpisalo has six such wins.
So basically, keep the opponent under three goals if you’re going to win.
Bobrovsky has turned quite the corner in recent years. The days of wondering if his barking groin could hold up over the course of an 82-game schedule are over (I actually mentioned this before he was ill last night — knock on wood).
He has become the workhorse for the Jackets, in part because of his regular-season brilliance, and also because of the grooming process for Korpisalo, who has dealt with the I-71 shuffle between Columbus and Cleveland much of the year.
While Bobrovsky has successfully sustained a winning-consistency during the regular season, and propelling Columbus to being a formidable playoff contender and threat every night he is in goal, the real test lies ahead.
For Columbus to have a chance in the playoffs, they will need their veterans more than ever. But specifically, Bobrovsky will have to be markedly better than his 3-10, 3.63 GAA, .887 SV% postseason career numbers. I think he can do that, and having a much better defensive corps will only help take the pressure off the goalie. John Tortorella had an interesting perspective about the defense, specifically the young-guns, Zach Werenski and Seth Jones, following last night’s game.
Columbus' most consistent player, offensively, has been leading scorer Artemi Panarin (58 points, 21 goals, 37 assists, 0.87 P/PG).
Panarin, who was brought in to be that dynamic game-breaker, specifically with the playoffs in mind, will be among the catalysts for Columbus then, but especially in this final stretch of games to close out the regular season.
Cam Atkinson, who has been limited to just 51 of the Jackets’ 67 games this season, has 28 points (13 goals, 15 assists). But 15 of those points (seven goals, eight assists) have come since his return to regular duty on Jan. 25 in the 2-1 win over the Coyotes.
Atkinson does not have the kind of numbers most expected following his breakout last year, though now back and healthy, he is delivering results in an effort to show it’s not how you start, but how you finish.
The power-play, while overall, looks gaudier than the gridiron version of That Team Up North’s record against Ohio State, is at more of a middling 19.4% since Jan. 1, ranking 20th in the league, but mired in a 0-for-11 dry spell for March. Conversely, the penalty kill has suddenly been hot, killing off 10 of their last 11 chances.
They just don’t all like to work at once, do they?
This season, the Jackets have 130 5v5 goals, which ranks 10th in the league, and is the same as the Penguins. That isn't shabby. Their xGF for 5v5 is 148.17 which ranks first. Obviously better, and more in line with the pre-season thought process and expectations, and where things may be now if not for unavoidable, but all-too-common, injuries, and ill-timed slumps.
Well, there’s never a good time for a slump but these occur, seemingly, at the worst time and it’s one of those things that can feel contagious.
Just like when everything is going well.
The Jackets' rollercoaster of a season occurs on a nightly basis. After consecutive wins over the Sharks (sorry-not-sorry to my Sharks pal, Patrick) and Golden Knights, and winners in four of their last six, the ride is on its steady climb to the top. But that cautiously optimistic feeling is always mixed with the pre-bottom rush euphoria and nauseousness that joins it. Such as that feeling in-between the 5-1 win over the Capitals and blowing a 2-0 lead after the first period against L.A. last week.
But when you take a step back and breathe, the Jackets appear to be coming on again, perhaps at the right time.
They have scored first in their previous five-straight, which only added to the salt-in-the-wound feeling versus the Kings and Ducks, at the time. Yet when things could have unraveled, they stepped up in San Jose and against Vegas in Bobrovsky's absence. Korpisalo excelled in his pop-quiz, ending a short string of tough performances while showcasing his fantastic potential.
And just as we think one way or the other about this team, the pendulum tends to swing the other way. Even with the doom-and-gloom after one or two games, they are in a playoff spot, currently. At the very least, they're in the race.
And I can guarantee the rollercoaster nausea will accompany the ride, every rise to the top and fall to the bottom, the rest of the way.