The Columbus Blue Jackets were never the strongest team, nor were they the best team in recent years.
However, with changes to their coaching staff (adding John Tortorella mid-season last year) and roster (adding Seth Jones, Brandon Saad, and Zach Werenski), a revolution ensued and the team came back with a new attitude to start this season.
The highlight of their regular season included a 16-game winning streak (one short of the NHL record) between November 29th and January 3rd. The streak started with a home win versus the Tampa Bay Lightning and included a 7-1 drubbing of the Pittsburgh Penguins (which apparently didn’t translate in these playoffs). That revolution included a third-place finish in the ultra competitive Metropolitan Division behind only those Penguins and the team that ended their win streak, the Washington Capitals.
Hockey fans everywhere associate 16 wins with how many wins it takes to hoist the Stanley Cup, the holy grail of the sport. However, a strong regular season means nothing when entering the playoffs. Facing the defending Stanley Cup Champion Penguins in the first round, the Pens simply overpowered the Blue Jackets young core.
In a disappointing opening round, the Blue Jackets were absolutely rocked by the Penguins, losing in five games, 4-1. It didn’t take long for the Penguins to assert their dominance; jumping out to an early 3-0 lead, before the Blue Jackets showed signs of life taking Game 4 to narrowly avoid a sweep.
Sergei Bobrovsky was a leader in the revolution, hoisting the team on his back. With 63 games played this season (41-17-5), he was a big contributor in the success of the Blue Jackets earning a nod as a Vezina candidate just one year removed from a season that everyone in Columbus would prefer to forget. He also led the league in Goals Against Average (2.06) and Save Percentage (.932).
Out-dueling Bobrovsky was Marc-Andre Fleury, and it’s no surprise. The Blue Jackets thought they caught a break with the absence of Matt Murray who went down with an injury in the warm-ups ahead of Game 1, last season’s playoff hero. Unfortunately, the Jackets couldn’t solve Fleury to take advantage of Murray’s absence.
Last season’s stint as cannon fodder (34-40-8) with a seven-game losing streak to kick off the season brought in Tortorella and Jones mid-season (for Ryan Johansen). Both were instrumental in the dramatic turn around just a year down the road.
While Bobrovsky was great in the defensive zone, Cam Atkinson was a key offensive weapon for the Blue Jackets. With 62 points (35 G, 27 A), he brought life to the newly united team along with Saad, Werenski and Jones.
It didn’t help that Werenski took a nasty shot off his face that eventually looked eventually caused his eye to swell shut, but that didn’t stop the 19-year-old blue line standout from trying to stay in the game. Unfortunately once his eye swelled shut and his face started to turn fifty shades of purple it was clear this was more than just a cut.After a trip to the hospital, it was ruled a facial fracture and the Blue Jackets were dealt the final blow to their already tenuous hold on their playoff hopes. They were eliminated in the next game without their rookie sensation, but his consolation prize is being named a Calder trophy finalist in the company of Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine. Not bad for a rookie blue liner who wasn’t even on the radar for the award at the start of the year.
Werenski was in good spirits after his injury, even tweeting the gruesome aftermath. No doubt the Calder nod will make put a happier spin on the end of his first season.
Jake Guentzel went to town, scoring five goals in five games, making sure Bobrovsky was not able to overcome such a strong team. Not to mention the obvious powerhouses of Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, and Sidney Crosby. The Penguins have too much power on their side of the ice.
Columbus will now wait until next season to start the next chapter with the hopes that they can come back stronger and make a deeper run into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. For the Penguins, they will take on the #1 seed in the NHL the Washington Capitals. The Toronto Maple Leafs, who were expected to be a short lived appetizer for the Caps, pushed five out of the six games into overtime.