Cover: The Blue Jackets season in review (so far!)
It's safe to say that expectations for the Blue Jackets have increased following a round one sweep of the favored Tampa Bay Lightning.
Entering into the series, few but the most diehard fans allowed the Jackets a chance at winning the series (the Lightning started the playoffs as heavy favorites to hoist Lord Stanley's Cup). But, as it's often said, that's why they play the games. Now, as the team begins second-round play for the first time in franchise history — a matchup with the Boston Bruins kicks off on Thursday, April 25 — revisit an up-and-down season through the words ofAlive CBJ columnist Jim Fischer, and brace for a potentially historic ending still to be written.
Inspired by the early-season results for your Columbus Blue Jackets, I considered writing one good paragraph followed by a bad one, then another good one, then a bad, and so on. (Feel free, I guess, to @ me with “how is this different from...” jokes.)
You're paying attention. You know the season can't even be described as a “roller coaster,” because the ups aren't up enough and the downs aren't distinguishable enough from the ups. So while it's (obviously) preferable to a poor start, it's intensely frustrating.
A friend texted me the other day: “Does it feel like the Jackets are a first-place team to you?” … A quick check of the NHL standings at the time, and again Tuesday morning — even following a tough loss to the Maple Leafs in Toronto — showed that, indeed, the Blue Jackets were in first place in the Metropolitan Division, looking down at the Rangers, the defending Cup champion Capitals and, all the way down there at the bottom of the standings, the Penguins. And yet, somehow, I understood what my friend was getting at.
Nearly 20 years of slumming it in the standings, not quite matching up and early playoff exits will do that to a fan's perspective.
While we're only about one-third of the way through this season, the Jackets' longest winning streak is ... three. Conversely, the team hasn't lost more than two in a row, and has thus been able to put together a winning record. (Substitute dots and dashes for Ws and Ls, and the Jackets' schedule reads like Morse Code.) Of course, if the Jackets should manage a longer winning streak, as they have in recent seasons, it could really make a significant difference in the standings.
The date the last Straight Jackets column hit the streets, your Columbus Blue Jackets won an overtime game in Philadelphia. Since then, the team has played five straight games at home, and will play another against New Jersey on Thursday, Dec. 20.
Six in a row at home. Just the cure for the up-and-down, non-momentum sickness that has plagued the team through an otherwise successful first third of the season, right? Solidify that playoff position, right? Establish your club as a legit Cup contender, right? Most of all, give the home crowds something to cheer, right?
Instead, results have been as mixed as opinions on the ticket tax passed earlier this month by City Council.
Two seasons back, in 2016-17, Sergei Bobrovsky was a Vezina Trophy winning goalie, carrying a .932 save percentage and a 2.06 goals against average into the playoffs, where, you'll recall, the Jackets matched up with their hated rivals from Pittsburgh. … And the team lost the seven game series 4-1, with Bob's save percentage dropping to .882 and his goals-against average rising to nearly 4.
A slow start this season (also a regular Bob thing) has given way to a stretch of “Regular Season Bob.” Over the past two weeks, he has four wins, a .931 save percentage and a 2.21 GAA. So Jackets fans and, more importantly, management, are again faced with competing questions: How important is Bob to the team's regular season success? And can Bob be counted on to maintain his level of play come playoff time?
While the team is playing well … it has seen more than its share of drama.
Last Thursday, two days after falling in Tampa 0-4, the team announced that goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky would “not be with the team” for its game against Nashville that night. The word suspended wasn't used, but it was made clear the decision was the result of “an incident [that] occurred in which Sergei failed to meet [team] expectations and values,” according to a statement from General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen. This came in the midst of a down-ish season for Bob, one that finds the goalie in the last year of his contract and facing an uncertain future.
(Excerpted from an interview with Blue Jackets General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen)
Do you anticipate being active at the trade deadline?
This time of year everyone is curious, I'm sure, from the locker room to the fan base. We'll see what the marketplace looks like. I think we have a pretty good team. Are we looking for ways to get better? Always. There could be an opportunity presented in front of us that we think is going to make us better not only this spring but into the future.
The central storyline of this Blue Jackets season has been the futures of forward Artemi Panarin and goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. … As the Feb. 25 NHL trade deadline approaches, General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen has basically three scenarios: Trade both players, trade one or the other, or hold both players.
[Holding the two] might seem counterintuitive, given that both are pending free agents who have intimated they're moving on. But neither has come right out and said it, so, maybe there's a chance? Would Jarmo have the stones to keep both players, hoping for a bit of a playoff run (for a franchise that's never won a playoff series, not that you needed the reminder — sorry to pick the scab), and then just lose both in the offseason with potentially nothing to show for it?
The NHL's trade deadline was this past Monday, but Kekalainen had assured the team was already the talk of the league over the weekend, bringing in two big-time forwards from the Ottawa Senators, center Matt Duchene and winger (and former Buckeye) Ryan Dzingel, in separate deals. … On Monday, Kekalainen addressed depth in other areas, adding goalie Keith Kinkaid (a terrific follow on Twitter, which might not be in any other scouting report you've read on him;@Blockaid1) and defenseman Adam McQuaid. …
After Tuesday's loss, the Jackets are actually out of a playoff position. But they have games in hand and a dramatically improved roster on paper. Can the team step up come playoff time?
To repeat a popular refrain of mine that's been uttered countless times during Jackets games since the NHL's trade deadline three weeks or so back: “Dammit!”
It was even uttered a few times on a recent Tuesday night, in a game the CBJ won 7-4. After going up 5-1 on the Boston Bruins in the second period, the home team gave up three straight and held a one-goal lead entering the third before adding to its goal total for a more comfortable win.
Things certainly haven't gone the way fans (or the front office, or the players, or the coaches, or...) would have wanted after General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen went all in at the deadline. But maybe there's something to the whole “needs time to jell” thing. Or maybe there is something to the “overwhelmed by expectations” thing.
That these games against the Montreal Canadiens have become of uber-critical importance wasn't supposed to be. Adding forwards Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel, as well as defenseman Adam McQuaid and goalie Keith Kinkaid, at the NHL trade deadline in late January gave the team what many believed to be its best-ever lineup. Facing the prospect of losing free agents Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen bet on his guys, added firepower and sent them on what was supposed to be a strong finish.
We all know how that has gone.
And so here we are, the Jackets basically in a two-team race for the eighth and final playoff spot with... the Montreal Canadiens. (There are other mathematical possibilities, but they seem highly unlikely.)
These three games against the Habs loom large, indeed, although they won't necessarily be what decide the two teams' mutual fate. But they're obviously a major factor. (Whether the supposed better end of that fate, a likely first-round dispatch courtesy the juggernaut Tampa Bay Lightning, is actually preferable depends on your perspective.)
So the Jackets are in the playoffs for the third straight season, an achievement for which the relative merits can be debated, but here we are as Jackets fans. You can't win a playoff series unless you're in the playoffs, so there's that. But as fans of the only NHL franchise to never advance in the playoffs, Jackets faithful were sort of hoping for a little bit more hope.
Instead, the team stumbled through lengthy patches of a regular season marked by drama and strife, often the result of the contract status of goalie Sergei Bobrovsky and forward Artemi Panarin, rampant speculation boiling over into real-life turmoil on a couple of occasions.
Health issues facing the children of captain Nick Foligno kept him away from the team for a couple of stretches, and then there was the “all-in,” when General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen loaded up at the trade deadline. That approach failed miserably, at first, but the team scrambled and displayed some solid play to claim the eighth and final Eastern Conference playoff spot.
And a matchup with the Tampa Bay Lightning, a team blessed with loads of offensive talent (Nikita Kucherov might be the league's best player right now), a deep blueline and a skilled, young goalie in Andrei Vasilevskiy. The Lightning, for those who weren't paying attention, won 62 games during the regular season, only the second team to reach the total in league history. Along the way, the Lightning dispatched of the Jackets in the three games played between the clubs by a combined 17-3 score.
The comparison is inapt on many levels, but Blue Jackets fans can be forgiven, at least for today, if the words “Do you believe in miracles?” didn't run through their minds at about 9:35 p.m. Wednesday night.
That would be about the time Artemi Panarin scored an empty net goal, giving the CBJ a 5-3 lead in Game 4 of their Eastern Conference playoff matchup with the Tampa Bay Lightning. The goal clinched, for all intents and purposes, the team's first playoff series victory in its history (the Jackets would add two more empty netters for a 7-3 final score). …
The truth is the Jackets have been better than their results for much of the season, which has seen its share of drama, turmoil and struggle. In particular, something clicked about a month after the trade deadline, which was notable for General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen's all-in approach.
The team executed its game plan with lethal efficiency against the Lightning, the four-game sweep placing the Jackets squarely in the middle of the conversation regarding who might be the team to win it all, now that the supposed best team has been eliminated.
Compiled by Andy Downing