On Dec. 1, the Columbus Blue Jackets were three points out of the Metropolitan Division basement, giving up 13 more goals than they had scored and looking like an also-ran, despite being realigned to a weaker conference.
As of Monday, Jan. 20, the Blue Jackets are in a playoff seed, sitting in the final wild card slot with 52 points. Their goal differential is now a plus-3 They’ve won an NHL-best six straight games.
What the heck has gotten into the Columbus Blue Jackets? Here are seven factors in their turnaround.
1. The Horton Effect
The Blue Jackets have only played eight games with their prized free-agent acquisition in the lineup, having signed Horton to a seven-year, $37.1-million contract in the summer before his shoulder surgery.
They’ve won seven of them.
Horton has two goals and three assists in those wins, including three points on the team’s effective if inconsistent power play (19.0 percent on the season, No. 11 in the NHL.) He’s skating with Boone Jenner and Artem Anisimov, throwing his body around and making a difference on the ice.
And off the ice, too. As Coach Todd Richards told Fox Sports Ohio: "It's not only players, it's coaches looking at him, too — how he handles himself.”
2. The Emergence of Ryan Johansen
Ryan Johansen was the third offensive player taken in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft. Taylor Hall and Tyler Seguin went ahead of him, and both have found significant success at the pro level. Johansen, meanwhile, entered the season with 33 points in his first 107 NHL games.
This season, he’s already hit career bests in goals (18) and assists (18) and multi-point games (10). He also has two shootout goals in five chances, including the game-deciding goal in a win at Buffalo on Jan. 18.
He’s better than a point-per-game in the Jackets’ 24 wins (26 points) and playing to a plus-15; to the surprise of no one, when Johansen struggles (10 points in 24 losses, with a minus-20) so do the Jackets.
(Toss some credit to linemates R.J. Umberger and Nick Foligno as well.)
3. The Bob Show Returns
Remember when Sergei Bobrovsky was the guy squandering his Vezina win, and failing to lock down the Russian goaltending gig with a middling first few weeks of the season?
Yeah, that guy’s gone now. In his place is the old Bob, who has a .930 save percentage since Nov. 20 with two shutouts, going 9-2-0 during that stretch. He’s won his last seven straight starts for the Jackets.
His signature game during the streak? A 36-save shutout of the Carolina Hurricanes on Jan. 10, a Canes team that had won five straight games.
4. The Jackets’ Possession Game
The difference between how the Jackets played earlier this season vs. recently with regard to puck possession is stark. Via Extra Skater, here’s the even strength Fenwick Close figures for Columbus. (Close meaning a tied or one-goal game in the first two periods; Fenwick is “the number of unblocked shot attempts by a team” during that time period.) Via Extra Skater:
That’s a heck of a trend line in the Jackets’ favor, and evidence that they’re playing smarter when the game is close – and being rather stingy with the puck.
5. Matt Calvert-Brandon Dubinsky-Cam Atkinson
Dubinsky is second on the Jackets with 32 points this season, playing on special teams and winning the majority of his faceoffs. Atkinson’s 27 points are already a career high. Calvert’s season was interrupted by a shoulder injury, but he’s played well since returning and is heating up offensively. It’s a line whose speed can be a game-changer, even with a high-tempo shift that doesn’t result in a goal.
6. James Wisniewski
With all the attention to Jack Johnson and his Olympic snub ... he's not even been the best defenseman on the Blue Jackets. The Wiz has seven points in his last six games, and has 28 points in 41 games for the Jackets, second in ice time for the season on average (21:46).
7. Finally … The East
Five of the Jackets’ six wins in a row have been against Eastern Conference foes, with the lone Western Conference win coming against Southeast Division refugee Winnipeg. Their overall record against the Eastern Conference is 18-12-3, tied for fourth-most wins with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
With that in mind, things might continue to be in Columbus’ favor: After facing the LA Kings on Tuesday, the Jackets play their next six games against the East before a three-game West Coast swing before the Sochi break.