Not much was expected from a Columbus Blue Jackets team that suffered through one of its worst seasons in its history in 2011-12, traded its franchise cornerstone in the offseason and were the worst team in the league in late February.
My, how things have changed.
Columbus, surprisingly fighting for one of the Western Conference’s final playoff spots, turned into a buyer at the trade deadline and acquired seven-time 30-goal scorer Marian Gaborik before Thursday’s road matchup with the Nashville Predators, who dealt veteran Martin Erat in a surprising move.
The Blue Jackets finished with an NHL-low 65 points last season and have made only one playoff appearance since entering league in 2000. They dealt disgruntled forward Rick Nash to the New York Rangers in July and appeared headed for a major rebuilding phase.
Columbus (15-14-7), though, isn’t waiting to compete. It has gone 10-2-3 over its last 15 after Mark Letestu scored four minutes into overtime to beat Anaheim 2-1 on Sunday.
Sergei Bobrovsky made 28 saves and improved his goals-against average to 2.13.
“The one thing we can’t change now is being satisfied,” said coach Todd Richards, whose team was an NHL-worst 5-12-2 on Feb. 25. “We can’t have that. You’ve climbed the mountain and you get there and you (can’t) take a breath. We’re only halfway up the mountain. There’s still a lot of work in front of us.”
President John Davidson and new general manager Jarmo Kekalainen appear to be far from satisfied. Bobrovsky’s surprisingly stellar play allowed them to deal fellow goaltender Steve Mason to Philadelphia before giving up promising players in Derick Brassard - who scored Sunday - Derek Dorsett and John Moore to acquire Gaborik from the Rangers on Wednesday.
Gaborik, who has nine goals and 10 assists this year and three 40-goal seasons in his last five, waived his no-trade clause to join the surprising Blue Jackets. It’s unclear if he’ll play Thursday, but Gaborik should provide a scoring lift for a team that has a minus-10 differential in non-shootout goals.
“It seems like they’re heading in the right direction and it’s a new challenge for me,” Gaborik said. “It’s the first time I’ve been traded so it’s something new for me, but I’m looking forward to it.”
Columbus is 4-10-2 on the road this season and has won just six of its 37 all-time visits to Nashville, falling 5-2 at Bridgestone Arena on March 23. That contest was part of a current 4-1-2 stretch for the Predators (15-14-8), who are one point ahead of the Blue Jackets in the West standings but must move forward without one of its leading scorers.
Nashville traded Erat, who has four goals and 17 assists, to Washington after nine-plus seasons with the club for highly regarded prospect Filip Forsberg and minor-leaguer Michael Latta
The Predators also traded defenseman Scott Hannan to San Jose for a conditional draft pick. They will attempt to move forward and win for the fifth time in six home games after Pekka Rinne made 25 saves in Tuesday’s 3-1 win over Colorado.
“Everybody is happy and we are going forward with that, but we still have to win more games to get in the races,” said Patric Hornqvist whose power-play goal in the third tied the game.
Nashville has struggled at times but is in the hunt to make a fourth straight postseason appearance.
“We’re right in the thick of things right now, which is great,” coach Barry Trotz said.
Rinne has been solid of late, going 4-0-2 with a 2.20 goals-against average since March 21. He made 21 saves in the first meeting with Columbus and is 8-1-2 with a 2.34 GAA in his last 11 starts versus the Blue Jackets.