The Columbus Blue Jackets came out of the gate hot this season, but it didn’t feel totally real. The team’s possession stats were weak, and their PDO—a combination of shooting percentage and save percentage that tends to flatten out over time, and can indicate a team that’s just plain lucky—pointed toward them cooling off. All of this, plus the franchise’s unspectacular history, and a roster that’s just not laden with elite scorers, had observers unconvinced. And just about the only thing Columbus could do to convince people would be to keep winning. They haven’t lost since Thanksgiving weekend.
With a 5-3 victory in Winnipeg last night, paced by two goals from Alexander Wennberg and 31 saves from Sergei Bobrovsky, the Blue Jackets have won 14 straight, which ties them for the NHL’s third-longest winning streak ever. (They’re three back of the record, set by the ‘92-’93 Penguins.)
A funny thing has happened over the course of the last month: The Blue Jackets’ underlying numbers have improved, becoming more in line with—though not quite equal to—a team with a pretty significant lead for the Presidents’ Trophy for the league’s best record. It’s becoming harder to deny that this is a team that ought to be winning a lot of games.
All of this still feels very unlikely. This is largely the same team that stunk up the joint last season (they’re already better than two-thirds of the way to last year’s point total), and appeared hamstrung by bad contracts and by the coaching of John Tortorella, who tends not to rebound after wearing out his welcomes. The team’s top scorers are all perfectly fine players—Brandon Saad, Cam Atkinson, captain Nick Foligno—but none of them are the type to strap a team on its back.
A common knock on the Blue Jackets is that they don’t have a first line—or, more specifically, their top line of Saad, Wennberg, and Foligno doesn’t really feel like it ought to be a top line on an NHL-leading team. But a more accurate description would be that there’s no real fourth line here, no line that’s merely a mishmash of grinders, tough guys, and bottom-three forward that just don’t fit anywhere else. Right now Columbus’s fourth line is scoring as well as their other combinations, and two fourth-liners—Sam Gagner and Scott Hartnell—are among their top five goalscorers. Columbus’s offense is deep, and it doesn’t offer opponents a break.
Goalie Sergei Bobrovsky has been excellent too, his save percentage and goals-against average second in the NHL behind Minnesota’s Devan Dubnyk, who’s been just otherworldly. Bobrovsky’s always been talented, but he’s never really had an offense who can bail him out, and he’s never been able to stay healthy. This year he has, as have the rest of the Blue Jackets, and last night Jets coach Paul Maurice offered up Columbus’s health as a potential contributor to their turnaround.
“I think they were probably a disguised, good hockey team by some of the things they went through,” Maurice said. “Now, they have had a great run of health and you’re looking at their team at its best. They are playing well, they are playing confident, they are playing fast.”
Just one of their top-12 forwards (Matt Calvert) and one of their top-six blueliners (Seth Jones) have missed more than two games with injuries. (Both returned shortly before this 14-game winning streak started.) That’s a huge boost to any team for its chemistry, its consistency, and for just having its best players on the ice.
The Metropolitan Division is quite good and quite top-heavy, but it’d take a remarkable collapse for CBJ not to make the playoffs. (And the recent uptick in underlying stats says the Blue Jackets are much closer to being this team than they are to one capable of a collapse like that.) It has to be accepted: Columbus is very good. The postseason is a different story, but they and we will deal with that when it gets here. In the meantime, they’ve got a marquee New Year’s Eve showdown with the Minnesota Wild, winners of 12 straight. It will be the first game in NHL history pitting two teams with win streaks of seven games or more.