The Columbus Blue Jackets have had less successful seasons. Many of them, in fact. But this year may go down as their most turbulent.
There's the star goalie, long assumed to be on his way out of town this summer after six years in Columbus. Sergei Bobrovsky got off to a slow start to the season and saw his backup eat into his playing time. That led to unhappiness, and ultimately, a one-game suspension in January for not remaining on the bench after he was pulled in Tampa.
There's the best player in franchise history, who's made it known for months that he'd rather test free agency this summer than sign an extension with the Blue Jackets. Artemi Panarin's will-he-or-won't-he departure has hung like a cloud over the club since last summer.
There was the all-in move at the trade deadline, which looked like it was going to blow up in general manager Jarmo Kekalainen's face after the Blue Jackets lost three of four in ugly fashion shortly after they surrendered prospects and draft picks for forwards Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel.
There were the losing streaks, the frustration from failing to show up at home against rivals and elite opponents, ugly efforts against the league's worst teams, and player-only meetings and dinners to try to right the ship.
All the drama a pro hockey team could want and then some.
But here the Blue Jackets are, winners of six of their last seven and headed to the Stanley Cup Playoffs yet again.
“I'm proud of the guys,” coach John Tortorella raved after the team's 3-2 shootout win over the New York Rangers Friday night. “Listen, there's been shit running around our team all year long, right from the get go, as far as guys leaving, and there's been a lot of things that have happened in that room. I think it's been a very honest locker room. When things come up, we air it out right away so it doesn't sit in the room.”
“It's been one of the craziest years for me, especially with all of the stuff we haVE to deal with.”
For Tortorella, it was one of the wildest rides in his 18 seasons as a head coach in the National Hockey League.
“It's been one of the craziest years for me, especially with all of the stuff we have to deal with, around us in the room,” Tortorella said. “We struggled at home. At certain big games, we didn't show. A lot of different things happened this year, but when push came to shove towards the end of the year, we went on a run, guys stepped up and found their way to get in here.”
Now, the Blue Jackets look to carry steam into the postseason.
The disgruntled goalie? He's been tremendous for weeks, surging to the league lead in shutouts with nine, and second in wins with 37. Since February 1, he's 18–8–0 with a .930 SV%, a 2.01 GAA and a staggering seven shutouts. Bobrovsky was superb Friday night, making several highlight saves and shutting down all three Rangers he faced in the shootout.
“He has found his game for quite a while here now,” Tortorella said. “And it kind of goes unnoticed.”
Panarin? He basically won Friday night's clinching game twice for the Blue Jackets. His goal with five minutes to play gave his team their first lead of the game, which should have held, save for a fluke in the final seconds that saw the Rangers send it to extra time. Once there, he scored the only goal of the shootout for the win. On the year, he has another career high in points, with 85, breaking his own Blue Jackets single-season record set last year.
“We're not done. We're not done at all.”
The new guys? Duchene and Dzingel are generating good scoring chances every night. Duchene is logging heavy minutes with his ability to buy time on offense and knack for finding his teammates with precision passes. He has six points in his last six games. Dzingel's goal early in the third period Friday night was a much-needed shift in momentum for the Blue Jackets.
This season has been bumpy, for sure, but maybe things are starting to click for a team with talent to make a deep run into the playoffs? The Blue Jackets set a franchise record with their 24th road win of the season last night and their 96 points – 12 of those earned in their last seven contests – are good for third-most ever by a Jackets team. They have one regular season game remaining, Saturday night in Ottawa, to get two more points and make it the second-best season in franchise history.
“We're not done,” captain Nick Foligno said, speaking to the general feeling on the team that they had their groove back. “We're not done at all. We're a team that feels really confident.”