The Columbus Blue Jackets just put the cap on a month of March that saw them go 11 – 4, including seven consecutive wins at month’s end. That’s a team record for wins in a month, beating the 10 wins notched in December. However, while that December streak had more of the high-wire act feel to it — due in no small part to a stretch where seven of eight games were decided in OT or a shootout — this one seems more grounded, more solid. The Blue Jackets have scored four or more goals in seven of their last eleven games, and scored fewer than three only once in that stretch. By contrast, the December streak featured only four games with four or more goals — and only one of those was in excess of four. Instead, the bulk of the December streak fell on the shoulders of goaltending, as the opponents managed two or fewer goals in eight of those contests.
So what’s the difference? Bodies. Healthy, familiar bodies. It really is as simple as that. While the Blue Jackets are far from completely healthy, with Ryan Murray, Rene Borque, David Clarkson, Jack Skille and others still nursing injuries, they are the healthiest they have been in a long, long time, and only now — 76 games into the regular season, are sporting a lineup bearing any resemblance to the squad that was expected to open the season. Against New Jersey, Columbus fielded a fourth line consisting of Jeremy Morin, Mark Letestu and Matt Calvert. It wasn’t too long ago that we would have considered that the second line — and it is light years of difference from the fourth line the club has featured most of the year. In his post-game remarks after the New Jersey game, Mark Letestu noted that the speed his line had made a world of difference. Indeed, Letestu must feel like a man who received a pardon from the governor, finally having some solid wings to work with.
In typical fashion, coach Todd Richards sought to minimize the impact of a rejuvenated roster, professing that he just focuses on the players available. A noble concept, but not consistent with reality. He did acknowledge the speed factor, and also admitted that the number of healthy bodies gives him “more options.” Among those options is truly rolling four lines. Against the Devils, only Jeremy Morin had a single digit TOI number in minutes, (9:36) — and those all came at even strength. Calvert (11:57) and Letestu (12:49) had significantly more TOI than the customary fourth line duty, providing tangible evidence that the roster changes did provide the type of flexibility that has been lacking all year. Against New Jersey, that led to some anomalous results, such as Nick Foligno having only 11:05 of even strength ice time, while Artem Anisimov (14:16) and Marko Dano (14:14) led the club in that number.
While the numbers may be interesting, the optics are compelling. With four solid lines capable of doing something with the puck, Richards could be more situationally nimble, and use the last change to greater advantage. There were no throwaway shifts against New Jersey, and the club has never looked as consistently fast and mobile. With some added time to catch their collective breaths, the forwards were more dynamic in the neutral zone, turning the tables on the Devils, who make a living by frustrating opponents’ entries. And while the New Jersey game presents a convenient reference point for the discussion, these same themes have played out over the last dozen games.
With less reliance on the chosen few, other guys have started to emerge. It is no coincidence that Cam Atkinson has suddenly blossomed as the cast around him has gotten better. For the fans, that is both good news and an object lesson in what Cam needs to do going forward. With all his skill, Cam still needs a supporting cast to provide him the freedom to do what he does best. He has not yet developed the full repertoire of skills that enable him to make other players better. Ryan Johansen and Nick Foligno have made that transition, and it shows up both optically and in their assist totals. That’s one of the key elements that the club will undoubtedly address with him going forward, as it is all part of the evolution. Rick Nash struggled with the same thing, and some would say that he still struggles to some extent in elevating the play of those around him.
For purposes of this discussion, however, the important fact is that the club has elevated its level of skill and speed as the missing pieces have returned to the puzzle. Watching the play, the chemistry and increased confidence level are evident. While there is still a lot of rust, and mistakes continue to be made, the quality of the club’s problems is vastly improving. if Jenner — Johansen — Atkinson is your top line, then is the Dubinsky — Anisimov –Foligno line your second line? Or is it Hartnell — Wennberg — Dano? That’s a good problem to have.
The emergence of the “real” Blue Jackets over the past month is, of course, both a vindication and a bittersweet development. On the one hand, the temptation to say “if they had only done this all year” is almost irresistible. On the other hand, it is a vindication for those who have consistently maintained that yes, indeed, injuries can be an excuse, at least when they reach the magnitude that Columbus has experienced this year. By blitzing through the opposition of late, the Blue Jackets have shown that the core carried over from last year is indeed solid, that there is room for the young stars (Marko Dano, Alexander Wennberg), and that some diamonds in the rough can find meaningful roles (Kevin Connauton, Jeremy Morin, Rene Borque). With the perceived depth having moved from the blue line to the forward ranks (considering the likes of Kerby Rychel, Bjorkstand, Milano et al. waiting in the wings), the opportunities that not long ago seemed out of reach now again appear attainable.
Sure, pessimists can argue that these games are meaningless, but they really aren’t. First, it wasn’t until after the New Jersey game that the Blue Jackets were eliminated from the playoffs. Secondly, the vast majority of the March contests were exceedingly meaningful for the opposition — most of whom were battling for either playoff slots or playoff positioning. Finally, after a long and frustrating season, these games have lots of meaning to the players and fans. Anyone watching the reaction of the club and the fans when Jack Johnson scored his overtime backhander last night knows that to be true.
So, while it might have been Murph & the Magic Tones that got through December, it has been The Blues Brothers Rhythm & Blues Revue that bringing it home now. Jake & Elwood would be proud.