Blue Jackets take a harder road to the playoffs this time
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The Columbus Blue Jackets backing into a playoff spot with an overtime loss to Pittsburgh on Thursday somehow seemed fitting, considering the weird season it’s been.
The road to a second-straight postseason appearance — the first time in franchise history that’s happened — was pocked with potholes for the Blue Jackets. Major injuries, slumping stars and an NHL-worst power play seemed to doom them as the grinding days of midwinter wore on.
Not like last year, when the surprising young team had juice, momentum, healthy players having career years and a stunning 16-game winning streak that was the talk of the league. The Blue Jackets cruised to the playoffs with 11 games left in the schedule.
By the time February rolled around this time, Columbus looked like an average team at best. The Blue Jackets lost eight of their first 11 games in the month and were slipping down the table in the rugged Metropolitan Division. A series of significant injuries to top players had coach John Tortorella piecing together lines from what was left and call-ups from the AHL team in Cleveland.
The Feb. 26 trade deadline brought veteran forwards Thomas Vanek and Mark Letestu, as well as scrappy defenseman Ian Cole. After a pair of West Coast losses at the beginning of March, the Blue Jackets ripped off a 10-game winning streak on the way to winning 13 of 15 games.
Still, it took three straight games of overcoming a three-goal deficit to get at least a point, and the overtime loss to Pittsburgh in the season’s penultimate game Thursday to earn a needed point and lock up a playoff spot. New Jersey and Philadelphia were always within a point or two, creating urgency every time the Blue Jackets stepped onto the ice in the past week.
“There was a point that we stayed in it when we were playing lousy, we were banged up with injuries and we weren’t playing that well at certain times, even when some (injured) guys came back,” Tortorella said. “We stayed in because (other teams) were losing. We’re just fortunate that we kept on winning when everybody else started winning. It’s crazy.”
Crazy, indeed, considering key contributors Boone Jenner, Cam Atkinson, Alexander Wennberg, Seth Jones, Brandon Dubinsky and captain Nick Foligno all missed significant chunks of the schedule with injuries.
The Blue Jackets wouldn’t be preparing for the postseason without Artemi Panarin, brought to Columbus in an offseason trade with Chicago, and 19-year rookie sensation Pierre-Luc Dubois, who got his 48th point of the season Thursday night, breaking the franchise rookie record set by Zach Werenski last season.
The 26-year-old Panarin has become the dangerous puck distributor and sniper the Blue Jackets had been seeking, getting 27 goals and 55 assists for a Columbus franchise record of 82 points. He’s put up 13 points in the last five games, including a pair of assists against Pittsburgh.
Columbus is playing its grittiest hockey at just the right time.
“I am absolutely thrilled,” Tortorella said. “The amount of work they put in; we were dead and gone there a couple of months ago. I’m thrilled we get to experience what we’re going to experience here.”
If they can beat Nashville in the regular-season finale Saturday, they have a chance to secure home-ice advantage for the first round of the postseason. That’s never happened in Columbus, either.
“We’ve been playing our best stretch of hockey and coming together as a group, so obviously it’s a good time of year,” Jenner said. “We have to keep going.”
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