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For most of the season to date, there hasn’t been much to be excited about in Columbus. All the guys who left town also left a vacuum in their wake, and while there were some warm bodies to fill the roster spots, the quality of player took a nosedive.
That is, until Dec. 9. Just a day before, the Blue Jackets were 27th in the league, sitting three games below the NHL’s definition of .500 with just seven regulation wins from 29 games.
But since then, no one in the league has a higher winning percentage, as they’ve ripped points from eight straight contests, including six wins, and outscored opponents at a nearly 2-to-1 clip. What’s especially amazing about this run is that they’ve been missing a lot of bodies at least some of it: Zach Werenski, Ryan Murray, Markus Nutivaara, Emil Bemstrom, Kole Sherwood, Sonny Milano, Josh Anderson, Cam Atkinson, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Andrew Peeke, David Savard, and Brandon Dubinsky.
For those scoring at home, that’s 12 guys from the active roster — or 11 if we’re not counting Dubinsky, who’s been out all year — who have been absent for some or all of this streak from a team no one expected to be all that good.
There’s the “next man up” mentality for sure, and there are few coaches alive who can rally a team behind an eff-you talking point than John Tortorella. But given the overall quality of the roster, even before they had to call up half of Cleveland, you also gotta wonder what this team’s true quality is. It’s doubtful anyone buys this team as a legitimate contender for anything, not on the basis of eight games. But the teams they’ve beaten in this streak include Washington twice (plus another meeting tonight) and the Islanders, and they lost a 1-0 overtime game in Pittsburgh.
The basic facts are these: In the eight-game points streak, they’ve outshot their opponents (plus-26) which is great, but enjoyed a shooting percentage of 10.4 and a save percentage of .942. That alone is going to win you a lot of hockey games even if you get outshot, which to their credit, they haven’t been.
Before this streak began, the team was in a very different place. Still outshooting opponents on a consistent basis (plus-128 in 29 games), but suffering a shooting percentage of 7.3 and save percentage of .893 in all situations. Given the guys they lost, maybe you say those numbers are perhaps a little more in line with the teams’ talent levels overall, and also that the success they’ve had despite a heavily minor-league roster is, shall we say, unrepeatable.
But the thing is: Joonas Korpisalo seems to be figuring it out after a rather poor start to the season and, indeed, his career. Yes, he’s on a heater right now, but even going back to the start of November, he’s a .920-plus goalie, but that’s mostly because the team is really making it pretty easy for him. By expected-goals against, the Blue Jackets have been the second-best team in the league at suppressing shot quantity and quality since Nov. 1, ahead of everyone by Minnesota.
They were still struggling in part because it appears Elvis Merzlikins is not ready for primetime, and despite all these injuries — you can believe there have been others since the start of November — they’ve played well on the balance. On this basis, you can believe that this level of play, though certainly not this pace of winning, could continue. At least in their own end, because they’ve really become a very good penalty killing team over the last two years. Even if they’re not generating a ton of offense from the PK like they did last season, they’re still one of the best teams at limiting xGA/60 when shorthanded (third for the whole season, just like they were last year, and second since Nov. 1).
The only question mark, then, is what they can figure out offensively. Even given that a few of their biggest weapons have missed time, the team has to wonder who’s going to generate opportunities and goals. Per-hour in all situations, they’re 19th in expected goals and 24th in actually putting the puck in the net. They’re a bit better than that at 5-on-5, meaning it’s their power play that’s hurting them.
That’s all to be expected based on who they lost and who they’ve retained, but things have improved quite a bit lately, despite the rash of injuries. If we want to call them a roughly average team on the balance, that seems fair. They’ve improved a lot over the course of the season but their poor start and their lingering talent deficit likely means their only real hope is to play spoiler for all the good teams in their division, unless this absurd PDO bender continues for another month or so.
We can put it this way: The day before this points streak began, this team was 27th in the league, 13th in the East, and seventh in the Metro. And after picking up 14 of a possible 16 points, they’re 23rd in the league, 12th in the East, and sixth in the Metro.
That’s how deep the hole was, that’s how big the talent gap still is, and that’s unfortunately what happens under a loser-point system.
The Blue Jackets, big streak and all, needed all those points to get back to where they probably should have been all along. And while they’re trending upward, they would likely need some help to truly get into the playoff conversation. That’s how it goes sometimes.
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