COLUMBUS, Ohio - Nearly three weeks ago, the Columbus Blue Jackets were right where everyone has grown accustomed to finding them—at the bottom of the NHL standings.
In a 12th season as a franchise, the club has perpetually been rebuilt after a succession of drafting disasters, bad hires and one-sided trades. Going young, trading for goals, beefing up the blue line—nothing worked. There seemed no hope for the fans.
But all that has changed.
"All season long, they've worked their tails off," Blue Jackets director of hockey operations John Davidson said of his players. "And we're getting results now in the standings."
Suddenly, the often luckless Blue Jackets are one of the hottest teams in hockey.
They've collected points in a franchise-record nine straight games (5-0-4) to climb from doormat to the cusp of contention in the Western Conference. Through Thursday's games, their 26 points left them just four points out of a tie for fifth place.
"They've been playing really well lately," Patrick Kane said after his shootout goal gave the Chicago Blackhawks a 2-1 victory at Columbus on Thursday night. "They're a good team, especially compared to last year. It was a good fight for us."
Considering that the Blackhawks are just three games removed from an NHL-record 24-game points streak (21-0-3) of their own to open the lockout-shortened season, that's high praise.
There are three huge reasons for the turnaround.
First, goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky has been a stone wall in net. He was selected as the league's top player last week when he went 4-0-0 with a 0.77 goals-against average, .927 save percentage and his first career shutout.
He didn't stop there. He's given up just five goals in his last five games.
Acquired for a second-round and two fourth-round picks last draft day from the Philadelphia Flyers, the skinny Russian is one of the hardest workers on the team. After falling out of favour in the City of Brotherly Love, he has become a fan favourite in Ohio's capital city.
"(Bobrovsky) has been out of this world," Vancouver netminder Roberto Luongo said after his club also escaped with a 2-1 shootout victory against the Blue Jackets on Tuesday.
Second, a bunch of relative unknowns, old-timers and never-weres have developed into solid contributors for Columbus.
Matt Calvert was a fifth-round pick in the 2008 draft who hadn't really distinguished himself in 55 games over the last two seasons.
But this year he has become a persistent nuisance to opposing teams, chasing down pucks and harassing players while showing a knack for doing a little bit of everything.
"We're starting to learn how to win hockey games," Calvert said.
Vinny Prospal, playing perhaps his final season at 38, leads the club in goals (9) and in confidence. The Blue Jackets were leading the Detroit Red Wings, one of hockey's ruling elders, by a 3-0 score last week when Prospal got into a shoving match with defenceman Kyle Quincey. Then, in an incredible bit of gall, he directed Quincey's attention to the scoreboard.
It was like a serf talking trash to a king.
Then again, Columbus went 4-0-1 against the mighty Red Wings this season, both teams' last in the West before moving to the East next season.
Finally, coach Todd Richards has his team playing as hard as any in the league.
"They're a tough team to play against," Chicago goaltender Corey Crawford said Thursday night. "They play hard and they've got some skill up front. Even their defencemen, they can fire the puck in from the point. They're well-rounded."
Richards is in his first full year as head coach after being elevated midway through last season to take over for the fired Scott Arniel. The former Minnesota Wild head coach is demanding and has a no-nonsense approach. He wasn't happy about his senior citizen, Prospal, pointing to the scoreboard and lectured the team after that game.
The next day, the Blue Jackets beat the Red Wings again, this time in Hockeytown.
After years of having a team that occasionally didn't show up for games, the fans love the current high-wattage club which seldom gets outworked. A crowd of more than 15,000—granted, with quite a few Blackhawks fans sprinkled in—spent most of the overtime on Thursday night standing and roaring as the teams traded thrusts and parries.
"Up and down, they had a chance, we had a chance. You could feed off the energy from the fans because the fans were enjoying it," Richards said, disappointed that his team had to settle for one point. "It was a great environment."
This was supposed to be a transitional year for the Blue Jackets, a time for Davidson to get a feel for the organization and for new GM Jarmo Kekalainen to sort through the team's personnel. Both needed to determine how to use three precious first-round picks they have in this summer's draft and what to do at trade deadline, now less than three weeks away.
"There's a lot of games between now and then," Davidson said. "We'll let nature take its course and see how we do and be prepared to do whatever is necessary. And, remember, it's intelligent in our world to keep the big picture in mind."
After the club closes out a four-game homestand with games Saturday night against Phoenix and Tuesday against Nashville, it hits the road for 12 of the final 17 games.
If the Blue Jackets keep winning, Davidson was asked if he'd be in an awkward position having to decide whether to deal for more help to make a playoff run or to trade veterans to grab even more picks in what is supposed to be a deep draft
"Winning is never awkward," he said. And then he laughed.
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