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ANALYSIS: Blue Jackets are back in the race at the halfway point

Defensive identity has helped push Columbus through NHL's first half

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

There was a time this season that the Blue Jackets were perilously close to knowing they were playing out the string on the 2019-20 season. 

After a 4-1 loss at Florida on Dec. 7, the team was 11-14-4. With just 11 wins in the first 29 games, Columbus was well short of a playoff pace, and head coach John Tortorella knew that going into a busy stretch of games before Christmas, the Blue Jackets had to string together wins or else postseason play was going to be a pipe dream. 

"We're under water," Tortorella said in early December. "This little bubble before Christmas is very important as far as where do you go as a coach with the team. How do you end up coaching it? Where do we think we are? And where do we want to get to? A lot of things come into play the next couple of weeks." 

All Columbus has done since then is earn points in all 12 games, an 8-0-4 stretch that has pushed the team to within three points of a playoff spot. It's come as a rash of injuries have hit the team, yet the Blue Jackets continue to persevere.  

Given the strength of the Metropolitan Division, there's no guarantee that the Blue Jackets -- one of seven NHL teams to make the playoffs in each of the past three seasons -- will again punch a ticket to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. But there's also little doubt that the team is back in the hunt, especially as a number of talented players should return to action over the coming weeks.  

Tortorella has said all year that the team has played good minutes, but the goals just weren't going in early on. Over the past dozen games, the worm has turned and there's clearly a different vibe around the squad. 

"I thought we were going about it the right way in a lot of areas (early in the season), we just weren't able to score," Tortorella said. "So they have not been worried, they have been businesslike. I'm happy for them that they can feel good about themselves because I don't think players really feel good about themselves unless they get that result or a win. They've gotten a few here and found a way to get some points, so they should feel real good about themselves." 

So where do things stand with the Blue Jackets as the second half of the season gets ready to begin Saturday with a home game against San Jose? Here's a look at some key areas for this squad that they can lean on going forward.  

Defensive identity 

If there's one calling card the Blue Jackets have been able to rely upon all season, it's been team defense. 

Before the season, Tortorella talked of the importance of playing "above the puck," which was his way of saying the team needed to limit odd-man rushes and be in the right position to slow down opposing attacks. For this edition of the Blue Jackets to be successful, it wasn't going to run and gun its way to wins; it was going to have to play sound hockey and let its two goaltenders settle into their jobs. 

"Our whole conversation and emphasis, we're not really changing our style but our emphasis was really put on going north as quickly as possible," Tortorella said. "That's area plays, that's using the glass, putting it to areas -- flippers are a big part of our game right now -- and trying to get out in the neutral zone and play there. 

"I'm not sure what our numbers are this year on odd-man rushes compared to last year, but I know they've improved, and we've tried to cut down on that also. Like I told them, you're checking first. … You check first and make sure we're doing the right things away from the puck and let our offense come from that." 

That's how it's gone, as well. According to Natural Stat Trick, when it comes to measuring shot quality, the Blue Jackets allow 1.96 expected goals per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, which places third in the NHL. In addition, the Blue Jackets cede just 8.43 high-danger scoring chances -- those from the area in front of the net -- per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, which places second in the NHL.  

In particular, the defensive focus has led in part to the emergence of Joonas Korpisalo, who went from a four-year backup to an All-Star this season who posted a save percentage of .926 in his last 22 games before being injured Sunday. 

"We're playing smart," defenseman Seth Jones said. "We're playing our brand of hockey, and that's staying above the puck, that's playing smart in the neutral zone, that's locking it up, and it's working. … Through this stretch we've had, really all five guys on the ice have been great (together), and the goaltending has been great, which also helps." 

Veterans rolling 

Tortorella has been loath to separate the veteran members of his team for their contributions, preferring to keep the focus on the team game the Blue Jackets have played in recent weeks, but there's no denying a number of the team's top players have stepped up. 

During the 12-game point streak, Pierre-Luc Dubois (4-6-10) and Gus Nyquist (2-8-10) have tied for the team lead in points. Boone Jenner and Seth Jones each have added seven points, Zach Werenski has five goals in eight games since returning from injury, while Oliver Bjorkstrand (six goals in seven games) and Cam Atkinson (four goals in six games) were starting to put the puck in the net before their injuries.  

While many observers focused on the talent the Blue Jackets lost in the offseason, there are still plenty of core players on the squad who have contributed at a high level, and those players have been a big part of the recent success.  

Getting those players to talk about their role in the streak, however, is a tough task.  

"To be honest with you, I think the whole team has stepped up and is chipping in," Nyquist said when asked about the strong play of the veterans. "I think we've rolled four lines, and I think everyone has been chipping in. The guys that have come up have done a great job." 

A young team 

As you look at the Blue Jackets, it's not hard to see a team that has a bright future. 

Columbus entered the year as the NHL's youngest team, and it's been fun to watch such players as 20-year-olds Alexandre Texier and Emil Bemstrom, 21-year-old Dubois, 22-year-old Werenski, 23-year-old Sonny Milano, and 24-year-olds Bjorkstrand, Eric Robinson and Vladislav Gavrikov all keep getting better and better. 

Add in such players as Andrew Peeke (21), Kevin Stenlund (23), Ryan MacInnis (23), Gabriel Carlsson (23) who have come up and been key parts of the point streak, and the Blue Jackets have an abundance of talent younger than age 25.  

Then at age 25, there's Jones, Markus Nutivaara, Alexander Wennberg, Josh Anderson and the goaltending duo of Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins.  

That's an impressive cadre of talent with a lot of good hockey still ahead of it, and Tortorella has spoken about how he's tried to balance winning games with making sure the youngsters on the CBJ roster are getting the chance to develop the right way. 

"I have never stopped thinking about trying to win every game," Tortorella said. "That's always on my mind, but this year here I have to also think long-term, too, and where does the percentage go with me? Now we find a way to get back into this. I owe it to the hockey team to keep pushing here and let's not just talk about developing vs. we're trying to win, too. 

"That's what this game is about, but this is something I have to monitor all year long as we go through the second half." 

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