Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Dark Blue Jackets Definitive History of the CBJ: Part IVA; #Unsustainabowl

The first stage has dropped away from the Atlas V Rocket that is the Columbus Blue Jackets.  We are in that odd space in time where we are waiting for the second stage to ignite, and the heights it will propel us to are still unknown.  But we got a heckuva lift from that first stage.

The engineers at CBJ central packed that sucker full of an undefeated December and an NHL record.  When you mix those two unstable compounds, well BOOM!

As our brains try to recover from the G forces they have been subjected to, we will come to realize that some losses are an inevitable part of that drifting time while we wait for the second stage to ignite.  Will adding a little Korpisalo be the ingredient we need?  This remains to be seen.

This part of the blog is intended to chronicle the journey of the Columbus Blue Jackets.  When last we left, we were trying to determine the significance of Joonas Korpisalo’s run in goal for the 2015-16 CBJ.  Ironically, at the mid-point of the 2016-17 season we are in the same position, but not the same place.  As I write this the Blue Jackets have fallen out of first place in the NHL for the first time since before Christmas.  This in itself is worthy of note. 

But this iteration of the Blue Jackets is intent on larger goals, while having also accomplished other things of historic significance.  It is indeed a rich time to be writing about Blue Jackets history.
 
A short list of the team’s accomplishments in the first half of the season is as follows:

A.      Second longest win streak in NHL history, 16 games.
B.      First time in major North American Sports where two professional teams with win streaks of 12 games or more have faced off against one another, when the Jackets played the Minnesota Wild.  The Jackets prevail in that New Year’s Eve game.  The previous best was two 11 game streaks playing each other in the NBA (as cited by the Columbus Dispatch).
C.      Undefeated in the month of December.

The things that flow from this success are many, including a prolonged run in first place overall in the NHL. 

Setting The Stage

Following the disastrous campaign of 2015-16 the consensus for the Blue Jackets was a near bottom finish in the NHL.  The view of the team was that they were hamstrung by bad contracts, and there was a vocal contingent of the media that was loudly trumpeting that John Tortorella would be the first coach fired in the 2016-17 season.  Instead, Torts is going to the All Star game because his team has the highest winning percentage in the league. 

The only move of substance prior to the beginning of training camp was the acquisition of free agent Sam Gagner for near the league minimum to help shore up the center position.  In addition, the team had several veterans, some with pretty good pedigrees on Player Try Out (PTO) agreements in camp.  This reinforced the view from the outside that this wasn’t a very good team. 

Instead of nearly washed up veterans making the team, the thing that emerged from Tortorella’s brutal (but advertised ahead of time) training camp was a cadre of young players pushing veterans down the depth chart, or out of the league.  The Jackets routinely looked slow and ineffective in preseason games because they were skating so hard in training camp.  Their preseason record was poor compared to last year, and it seemed as if some of the fatigue carried over into the first two games of the season.

The Start

The 2016-17 Blue Jackets started the season much like the 2015-16 CBJ, by coughing up a lead in the third period to lose the opener, this time to the Bruins instead of the Rangers.    After losing the second game to the Sharks, certain people, such as this writer, were in panic mode with the thought that a repeat of 2015-16 might be in the offing.  As a result of the schedule, the CBJ got their 5 day break early in the season after those two games.  John Tortorella used that time as a mini-training camp to solidify systems.  You can talk about systems all you want, but waiting at the end of the 5 day hiatus were the powerful Chicago Blackhawks, followed by a road trip to the West Coast.
 
Shockingly, the Blue Jackets beat the Blackhawks, 3-2, and headed out west.  First stop was Dallas, a preseason pick to have a fine season, but the CBJ jumped them, and Bobrovsky garnered his first shutout of the year in the 3-0 win.  Continuing west to play the LA Kings, a game which the CBJ lost in overtime to secure a point, the Jackets had back to back games against San Jose and Anaheim.  Losing to San Jose again, and thankfully closing out that season series, the CBJ beat Anaheim 4-0, erupting for 4 goals in the first period, and shutting them down to earn Bob his second shutout of the road trip.  This allowed the Jackets to come back from the west coast, and end October with a credible .500 record at 3 wins-3 losses and 1 OT loss (3-3-1), which gave them 7 points.  No need to compare points to the previous year, as the Jackets had not yet won a game in 2015-16 at this stage of the season.

As November rolled around, the Jackets continued to hover around the .500 mark, but with some unusual signs emerging.  They beat Dallas at home in the return game for that season series, sweeping the two games with Dallas.  One of the more unusual games played in Nationwide Arena was next, as the Blue Jackets faced a hot Montreal Canadiens team that was on a 9 game point streak.  The CBJ curb stomped the Habs, scoring 3 goals in the first period, 5 goals in the second period, and 2 goals in the third period to beat them 10-0.  In one of the strangest events I ever witnessed at a CBJ hockey game, late in the third period, with the Jackets leading 9-0, the crowd was chanting “We want 10, we want 10!!” so Josh Anderson obliged the home fans to set the final score. 

The next night the Jackets traveled to St. Louis, where they lost 2-1 in OT, then came back home and beat Anaheim in OT, before traveling to play Boston, where they lost their second game of the year to the Bruins , 5-2.  The Jackets then went on a small four game winning streak by beating St. Louis, Washington and the Rangers at home, and the Capitals again on the road (and really pissing off Barry Trotz), before falling to Colorado at home in overtime.  Calgary beat the Jackets 2-0 in the next game at home, before they traveled to Florida for the back to back with Tampa Bay and the Panthers.  The Jackets won the game against the Bolts, but lost to Florida in overtime the next night.  Then the Jackets came back home and beat Tampa Bay 5-1 to close out the month of November.  As a result of all of this good play, the Jackets went 9-2-3 in November, leaving them 12-5-4 overall, with 28 points. 

This is a very nice start for the CBJ, and positions them well for the remainder of the season.  The national media is disappointed that Tortorella has not yet been fired, and is quick to point out that the CBJ can obviously not sustain this type of performance, with their scorching hot powerplay and excellent save percentage by Bob combining to give them a PDO over 100 (PDO is adding shooting percentage to save percentage), which means the pundits think this is all an illusion that will horrifyingly crash down in flames. 

Tragically for the CBJ, there is ample historical precedent for the team to horrifyingly crash down in flames in December.  In this space I have called it the December swoon, one of the best examples being the 2009-10 CBJ, which despite a hot start lost 8 straight in December to ultimately cost Ken Hitchcock his job.  However, the 2016-17 CBJ opted for another strategy.  They stomped on the gas.

The Streak

Beginning with the last game of November, a 5-1 win over Tampa Bay, the Columbus Blue Jackets launched on a historic run of winning, the likes that this franchise has never seen, and the NHL has seen only once before.  My own observation at the beginning of this time was my take away from the Bolts game.  I thought the CBJ had their way with the Lightening, and I wanted to see how they would react to some adversity.   They got some of that pretty quickly, traveling out to Colorado, and surrendering a 2 goal first period lead in the second period before Boone Jenner won it in the third.  The next night they went to Phoenix, where the CBJ poured 60 shots at Mike Smith, the Coyotes goal tender, but had to come from behind to tie the game and send it to the shootout where Curtis McElhinney prevailed over the exhausted Smith.  Then the CBJ and the Yotes got together in Nationwide Arena two days later and the Jackets won a more convincing 4-1 game.
 
After a couple of day break, the Jackets traveled to Detroit and won 4-1, before returning home to beat the Islanders 6-2.  Then they had a road trip to Northwestern Canada, where they beat Edmonton 3-1, Calgary 4-1, and Vancouver in OT 4-3.  Sweeping a Western Canada road trip is no easy thing to do.  Then the Jackets returned home to Nationwide arena, and beat the LA Kings in a shootout to split the season series with the Kings, followed by a 7-1 thrashing of the Penguins, and eking out a 2-1 win against a Montreal team that was unhappy with their earlier treatment.  This got the CBJ to the Christmas Holiday break riding a 12 game winning streak, and allowed them to ascend to first place overall in the NHL standings, an unprecedented achievement for the franchise to date.
 
By mid-December some of the pundits predictions of doom had started to turn to grudging admiration of the Jackets by virtue of what they had earned.  After the Christmas holiday, the media recognition started to snowball into a huge circus. 

After Christmas, the Jackets beat Boston 4-3, then traveled to Winnipeg and beat the Jets 5-3.  This set the stage for another historic moment in this run, as the Blue Jackets brought their 14 game winning streak to Minnesota, to play the Wild on a New Years Eve clash of streaking teams.  The Wild brought their own streak of 12 consecutive wins to the game, making this a historic confrontation.  For the first time in North American major professional sports history, 2 teams with winning streaks of 12 or more games were going to play each other with their respective streaks on the line (as reported by the Columbus Dispatch). 

In the run-up to this game, the Minnesota Wild had received a roughly equal amount of criticism about their ability to sustain the level of performance they were showing.  Since both teams had been repeatedly told by national pundits that their performance was unsustainable, the New Year’s Eve matchup was dubbed “the unsustainabowl”, a clash of two teams that were not supposed to be where they were. 

In front of a playoff like atmosphere, the Jackets jumped out to a 3-1 lead, and ended up winning the game 4-2 to push their winning streak to 15 games, and to tie for the second longest winning streak in NHL history.

This win allowed the Jackets to also go UNDEFEATED in the month of December an amazing accomplishment, allowing them to finish the calendar year with 56 points, compared to the 72 points that they achieved in all of 2015-16. 

In their next game, the CBJ faced a talented young Edmonton Oilers team who vowed to break the Jackets streak.  The Blue Jackets won that home game 3-1 to give themselves sole possession of the second longest winning streak in NHL history.

Next, they would go to Washington to play the Capitals and see if they could tie the longest win streak in NHL history set by the 91-92 Penguins of Jaromir Jagr and Mario Lemieux.  Instead, it was Washington’s night, and they skated away with a 5-0 win to finally break the Blue Jackets winning streak.  But sole possession of the second longest winning streak in NHL History, 16 games, belongs to the Columbus Blue Jackets.  For the first time the franchise splashes its name across the record books in a significant and positive way.

Since that time, some of the stresses of the streak have emerged, and Bobrovsky has had to fight off a significant illness.  The team has been playing .500 hockey as they try to put The Streak behind them.  The media circus has packed its tents and gone elsewhere chasing news, and the team has to settle down to the task of securing advantageous position in the playoffs.
 
In addition, the team has finally gone down a path it thought it would have to walk much sooner in the year, and Curtis McElhinney was put on waivers after a late collapse against the New York Rangers, and Anton Forsberg was elevated to the NHL club.  CMac was claimed by Toronto, and has already won a game for them.

In the meantime, Forsberg had one shaky outing, and was sent down.  Korpisalo looks to be the guy with a leg up on the back up competition, and has gone 1-1 so far.  We need a winning backup down the stretch here.
 
So much has happened this year, putting this history off until the summer was just not an option.  And there will be much more of a story to tell, as a playoff run seems certain for this club, barring utter disaster.

Hope Is Not A Strategy

Before I wind this down, I want to take a moment to acknowledge the passing of Jeff Little, a long time Jackets fan, and a gifted writer.  Jeff lately wrote for our colleagues over at The Cannon, and had amazing analytical ability on top of his gifts as a writer.  Jeff’s writing often shed light on the baffling twists and turns of the Blue Jackets early years, and it was he who coined the phrase “hope is not a strategy”. 

Jeff’s insight will be sorely missed, along with his wit and wisdom.  My only solace is that the Columbus Blue Jackets sat in first place in the NHL at the time of his passing, a phenomenon that must have been pleasing to him.  We will keep you in our minds and our hearts Jeff.

Interim Summation

So, we have had to delve into the history of the Blue Jackets at an unlikely point of the season, but the need to recap this first half was overwhelming.  There is a long journey yet ahead of these young Blue Jackets, and many miles to go before they sleep.  But it will be a lot of fun!!

GO JACKETS!!

GO MONSTERS!!

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