No matter what happens here on out, the Columbus Blue Jackets have exceeded many of our expectations. Virtually unbeatable since Dec. 9., the Blue Jackets are 19-3-6, with 44 points over that span, and only the Lightning have a better run at 23-5-2 and 48 points.
Today, with 25 games left in the regular season, Columbus has as firm a chance at not just making the playoffs, but hosting their first-ever series. Or they could miss out completely.
The impeccable run the team has rode in on, from near-dead back to contention, has vaulted them from near the NHL basement on Dec. 1 to a team as high as top five in the Eastern Conference. The confidence and swagger the team has accumulated is a surely a sight as marvelous as Elvis Merzlikins’ post-game leaps into captain Nick Foligno’s arms.
I still worry they’ll fall.
Few of us, even the most optimistic of whom cling to any silver lining possible, foresaw the season play out as it has.
Last season’s NHL darlings, the St. Louis Blues carved out a very similar path in which they catapulted up the standings from last place in the NHL in January 2019, before going on to winning their first Stanley Cup. Those Blues had expectations of contending prior to the season whereas these Blue Jackets were left for dead by the masses following free agency, and before a wave of injuries to its starting core once actual games did start. We don’t have to go into details, it’s been well-chronicled.
So many injuries NBC got tired with all the names.
Today, the Blue Jackets are first in the league in 5v5 save percentage (93.6), second in goals allowed per game (2.40). As Merzlikins has admirably filled in for injured All-Star Joonas Korpisalo, it’s basically been Merzlikins playing like an All-Star veteran in his stead, leading the league in shutouts with all five in an eight-start span. A franchise-rookie run reminiscent of Steve Mason.
In climbing back up from obscurity to Wild Card positioning with in the Eastern Conference, John Tortorella’s bunch are just four points from the second place Penguins, seven points of the first-place Capitals, and while those teams have games in hand, Columbus has a game a piece remaining with both.
Over the weekend I thought of the Blue Jackets has having no excuses not to be among the 16 playoff teams come April. That’s more a testament to how well this team has played and persevered through injuries and a tough beginning to the season. Though nothing is a certainty, and while the team must march on without Seth Jones, out 8-10 weeks following surgery on Tuesday for a fractured ankle, the reality is the Blue Jackets have a chance to make the rest of these games count for much more than just playing out the string.
We’d all take that back in November.
Like any team, however, there are surely some questions that we can ask as this team plays out the remaining regular season games.
What is this team going to do at the Feb. 24 trade deadline?
My guess is not a whole lot. Outside of a low-key depth trade, whether at the minor league level or otherwise, I’d say it’s pretty doubtful. Jarmo Kekäläinen has obviously proven he’s gutsy and not afraid to go all-in. But it’s a different scenario this season with so many young guys making an impression on the team. Not to mention, after going all-in at last year’s deadline, they don’t have the draft capital to shed this year.
And I don’t think they should.
I like the team as currently constructed, with so many aforementioned Cleveland Monsters up and playing well. There’s a nice feeling around this team, both among the younger guys and the veterans. I’m not sure you can count on a guy like Josh Anderson to return and provide the aspect of his game we’re used to, but if he’s able to come back and be impactful, that’s almost like a trade. Same for the return of Korpisalo.
Does this team have enough offense to win?
Lack of offense has bit the club over the last two games after identical 2-1 losses to the Avalanche and Lightning, the latter in overtime. They only have five goals over their past four games with two shutout victories in the mix, and it’s hard to ask of your goaltender to be any better. Run support is the key here.
We’d like to see more goals as this team trends towards the bottom of the league (2.60 GF/GP) in that category. Luckily, the defense and the goaltending has been able to make up for the teams’ lack of scoring in terms of ultimately finding ways to win. While the scoring defense is a nice component for the club in that it produces a lot of offense (looking at you, Zach Werenski), it’s going to be tough without Jones.
Another question now is how the team survives without Jones, not only a lynchpin on defense, but an ice-time leader who plays many facets in key situations for the rest of the regular season? Hopefully the team is able to weather the storm defensively, but it surely won’t help them offensively.
But as we’ve seen this year, the Blue Jackets been able to find (is the term clutch?) goals in the third period when it matters, for the most part.
While they allow two more goals than they’ve scored in first periods, and two more than they score in the second, they outscore third period opponents 52-36, which is the fewest allowed in the league overall. Their third-period scoring differential is tied-for-third overall.
Can Korpisalo return to All-Star form?
That’s surely an ingredient you hope for.
The question might instead be how will Tortorella handle this? You have to ride the hot hand, and they’ll still look to get Korpisalo some games. I’ve always felt like Korpisalo needed consistent starts to find his groove, and that same philosophy played out, albeit under different circumstances, with Merzlikins.
In a perfect world, you have two really good goaltenders who you feel good about on a nightly basis, while one can have the overall edge of starting time in net. But in a back-to-back scenario, of which there’s five left this season, there’s confidence with either guy now. At least assuming Korpisalo returns to form.
They don’t have to be the Islanders of last year with a nearly perfect split of usage with Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss, but those results were nearly impeccable, in addition to their defense.
What’s your biggest questions about this team? We can argue about it in the comments.