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Blue Jackets found their game at critical time

Columbus enters stretch run having found identity again

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

John Tortorella knew the good times weren't going to roll forever. 

As the Blue Jackets ripped off one of the most impressive point streaks in franchise history, a 19-2-5 run from mid-December through early February, the head coach knew at some point Columbus would hit adversity.  

Of course, there had been adversity all along when it comes to injuries, but very few NHL teams ever get points in 24 of 26 games when the league is as competitive as it is now. At some point, the Blue Jackets would lose a few games, and how they would respond would determine how the season would end. 

If Columbus' Western Canada swing over the past week was a response, then the Blue Jackets are in a good spot. The team played three solid defensive games, recapturing the identity that helped push it to its midseason hot streak.  

It took a while to get the reward -- after an overtime loss in the opener vs. Calgary and a dominant but frustrating loss to Edmonton, the Blue Jackets finally got the win they needed Sunday in Vancouver -- but the consensus is if the Blue Jackets play the way they did out west, the sprint to the finish could be a good one. 

"I think we put together nine periods of -- I think it just cements the belief on how we have to play," Tortorella said. "I don't think we wavered in how we played.  

"I think that's the most important thing on our road trip here is we were consistent in how we played, and we have to stay with it." 

A look at the numbers, both raw and advanced, shows that's true. The Blue Jackets' defensive numbers dropped off in the first stretch after the injury to Seth Jones, as the Blue Jackets had allowed 1.70 goals per game in the last 27 games he played only to cede 3.82 in the first 11 games after he left with injury. 

Columbus' expected goals against rate also jumped after Jones' injury, as the Blue Jackets at 5-on-5 were allowing 2.07 expected goals per 60 minutes in the defenseman's last 27 games. That measure of shot quality against showed Columbus was struggling to find its way a bit after the injury, as it bumped up to 2.15 in that 11-game span while the penalty kill and goaltending also was hit and miss. 

But in Western Canada, the Blue Jackets allowed just eight goals in three games for an average of 2.67, and three of those came late in the Edmonton game as the Blue Jackets pushed to erase a 1-0 deficit. In all, over the three-game stretch, Columbus gave up 1.79 expected goals per 60 minutes at 5-on-5.  

Of course, it is a small sample size, but it shows the team defense was much stiffer as the Blue Jackets skated against the Flames, Oilers and Canucks. That came after a couple days of video work heading into the game vs. Calgary as the team tried to recapture that defensive structure.  

"We had a good meeting before the game about getting back to that, and that's kind of our identity," defenseman Scott Harrington said. "I think now that's something we realize is effective and hopefully we can remind ourselves of that for each game down the stretch." 

"It's definitely something we focus on, and we're doing a lot better at it," Ryan Murray added. "As defensemen, we can definitely tell when the forwards are really doing their job and coming back defensively. It just makes a huge difference all over the ice. 

Now that the Blue Jackets have found the game they have to play, the question is -- will it be enough to return to the playoffs for a fourth straight season? 

The biggest question will come with the offense, as Columbus has scored 2.21 goals per game in 19 contests since the All-Star break. The biggest complaint from the road trip had to be putting 47 shots on goal against Edmonton's Mikko Koskinen only to see just one go in.  

Tortorella has pointed to a few of the team's veterans and top offensive players who he thinks can add more, but the head coach's hope is the team doesn't forget what makes it successful to chase goals.  

"The next thing is to not lose our patience," Tortorella said before the Vancouver game. "With athletes, with this group here, as I know them so very well, they are going to try like hell to score some goals, but we cannot lose our patience. We have to stay above the puck, we have to stay within ourselves. We have thoughts about some of the things we've talked about to create more offense." 

It will be a furious finish with Columbus battling the likes of the New York Islanders, Carolina Hurricanes, New York Rangers and Florida Panthers. With all of those teams retaining games in hand on Columbus, the Blue Jackets will need wins down the stretch to make the playoffs. 

The good news is they have appeared to find their game at the right time. 

"I think all three games this whole trip we have played good hockey," Tortorella said at the end of the Western Canada swing. "I think all three games we played really well in the way that we have to play. We have to keep on working on trying to finish and score some goals, but we found our way (in Vancouver)." 

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