Blue Jackets: Anatomy of remarkable turnaround
Goalie Sergei Bobrovsky has been central in the Blue Jackets’ playoff push since he took over the No. 1 job.
SAN JOSE, Calif. — This is not a fluke. This is really happening.
The Blue Jackets, on a 17-5-5 tear since late February, have launched themselves into the Stanley Cup playoff picture and caught the hockey world by surprise, not with smoke and mirrors or pacts with the devil, but for a rather obvious reason that is hard for some to grasp.
“We’re a (darn) good hockey team,” left winger R.J. Umberger said.
The Blue Jackets’ rise from last in the league in points last season — they were 30th again this season until Feb. 24 — might defy the odds, but it does not defy explanation.
Here are the main reasons for the turnaround:
The Bob show
Goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky could justifiably be reasons Nos. 1, 2 and 3. He’s the favorite to win the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goaltender and should be a contender for the Hart Trophy as league MVP.
It’s easy to forget, but by mid-February, he was barely on par with Steve Mason statistically.
It was only when the Blue Jackets decided to give Bobrovsky the No. 1 job that his game soared.
Bobrovsky needs the routine, he has said. And he craves the responsibility.
“That’s why I was so (excited) to come here (from Philadelphia),” Bobrovsky said earlier this month. “I wanted to be the (starter), I want to be the guy. This is my home now.”
It’s hard to define what “culture” means in pro sports, but the Blue Jackets believe they traded bad for good beginning late last season.
Coach Todd Richards deserves credit for the way he steadied a sinking ship after taking over for his overwhelmed predecessor, Scott Arniel.
Defenseman Jack Johnson gets full marks, too, for not just accepting a trade from Los Angeles to Columbus last season but embracing it.
The Blue Jackets have not had a captain since Rick Nash was traded last summer, but so many players have led with invisible “Cs” on their sweaters this season.
None of this “New World” leadership would — or could — have happened if Nash hadn’t been traded to the New York Rangers.
The Blue Jackets’ ability to forecheck is the building block of everything they do.
It allows the Jackets to unplug a more highly skilled opponent, by slowing them as they leave their zone, or pinning them around their net as they seek an outlet. San Jose and Detroit never quite could get through it this season.
It also is where most of the Blue Jackets’ offensive chances are created — not by tic-tac-toe plays up the ice, but by creating turnovers.
Matt Calvert, Derek MacKenzie, Jared Boll, Brandon Dubinsky, Nick Foligno and Colton Gillies are fast, disruptive players, and the rest of the team embraced it, too.
After some early season soul searching, Richards has found line combinations that work.
They were put together with checking and forechecking in mind, so any offense is considered a bonus.
The fourth line of Gillies, MacKenzie and Boll has had a bigger role than most fourth lines, and it has set the tone many nights.
Opposing coaches have marveled at how the Blue Jackets play the same way every night — nothing flashy, but no cracks in the armor, either.
“You know what you’re getting and you know it isn’t going to be easy,” said San Jose Sharks coach Todd McLellan, whose team lost 4-3 to the Blue Jackets on Sunday.
The Blue Jackets’ balance has made it difficult for opposing teams to target which line to check, although the trade for Marian Gaborik might have changed that.
The Jackets have four players with double-digit goals: Vinny Prospal and Mark Letestu (12 each), Artem Anisimov (11) and Gaborik, who got three of his 12 with the Jackets, so it’s coming in all directions.
Touch, pass, go
The Blue Jackets have become remarkably proficient at getting the puck out of trouble in tight spaces.
Under Arniel, the Blue Jackets used to get hemmed into their zone for what seemed like an eternity, chucking the puck around in desperation.
But under Richards, and now with assistants Craig Hartsburg and Keith Acton, the Jackets make small, smart plays along the boards and support the puck-handler with short gaps and multiple options.
The defensemen play a huge role in this. Fedor Tyutin is Mr. Consistency. Rookie Dalton Prout (plus-15 rating) is better in the defensive zone than anyone could have imagined.
Life on a razor
The Blue Jackets are 14-7-7 in one-goal games and 11-11-5 when they allow the first goal. That’s impressive.
“We don’t panic,” Johnson said. “One thing I love about (Richards) is, when we’re up one goal or two goals, the objective is to make it two goals or three goals, it’s foot on the pedal.
“So many coaches want to stop playing, shut it down offensively. He has the confidence in us to just keep playing.”
Richards said the tight games — 17 of 46 have gone beyond regulation — and the two-month playoff chase should help the Blue Jackets should they reach the pressure-packed postseason. The Jackets are 5-3 in overtime games and 5-4 in shootouts.
“That experience has to help,” Richards said. “It’s the only way to prepare.”