Straight Jackets: Back in the thick of it
Who could have seen this coming?
The answer to this question is probably the same as the one I posed not quite a month ago in this same space: "Whose fault is it?”
It may not have happened the way (or certainly as quickly) as General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen and Head Coach John Tortorella had planned or hoped, but this scrappy, defense-led, no stars, on-a-roll roster is probably what the organization hoped for when it chased playoff glory last season and then watched and/or let so many high-profile players depart in the offseason.
Since a 4-1 defeat of Florida on New Year's Eve, the Columbus Blue Monsters (it seems like half of the roster consists of players from the Jackets' Cleveland affiliate) have failed to earn points in only two games. The streak of earning points actually stretches back before Christmas, but the outlook was murky then because of all the injuries.
The team has gone from "bottom dweller" to "in the chase" for a wild card spot (or, dare we say, better?) in about three weeks. And all while playing without a significant share of lineup regulars.
As of this writing (the Jackets are set to host Boston tonight, Jan. 14), the CBJ sit two points outside of the second wild card position in the NHL's Eastern Conference. The team's most recent win was a shutout of Western Conference contender Vegas, after which goaltender Elvis Merzlikins did a guitar pose in tribute to his namesake and Strip staple before leaving the building.
Leading the way are young roster stalwarts Zach Werenski and Pierre-Luc Dubois, as well as new-this-season Gustav Nyquist. But the rest of the cast of characters has included players who have spent most of the year in Cleveland — Eric Robinson, Nathan Gerbe, Kevin Stenlund, Ryan MacInnis, Gabriel Carlsson, Andreas Lilja — and the team hasn't missed a beat. Indeed, there are fans concerned about what will happen when the regulars start coming back.
But the real revelation has been in net. I believe this current intended tandem of Joonas Korpisalo (who had really come into his own as a quality NHL netminder before suffering a knee injury that has him shelved for perhaps another month) and Merzlikins (who struggled mightily in limited action early this season but has blossomed since being called on after Korpi went down) was Jarmo's plan all along. Again, now the question looms how Torts will use them once Korpi is healthy.
But the poster child for the team's current success is 32-year-old Nathan Gerbe. He was a veteran playing in the AHL, expected to play leader to that bunch of youngsters. Well, a lot of those youngsters are in the NHL now, along with the batch of young players already on the CBJ roster, so maybe Gerbe's professionalism (a scattershot NHL career has been followed by seasons in Europe and the minors) and will (this might be his last hurrah at the NHL level) were just what was needed. It's hard to see him returning to Cleveland, given the tenacity, passion and, at times, skill he's displayed.
No, this level of production probably isn't fair to expect the rest of the way, but the Jackets have made up for an unfortunate start. It's kind of a reset as the league heads into the All-Star break. The rest of the season is going to be fun.