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Jackets searching for identity: 'We're fighting who we are'

Despite record start, Columbus still figuring out its persona amid early challenges.

by Brian Hedger JacketsInsider /

MONTREAL - As strange as it might be for a team that got off to a franchise-record start, the Blue Jackets are still in search of an identity.

Unlike last season, when they barnstormed their way through the regular season as underdogs, the Jackets no longer fly under the NHL's radar. They don't get overlooked by opponents anymore, as teams now prepare a little better for Columbus.

It's a reality for the Blue Jackets now, and they need to embrace it.

"Look at how hard we play against the elite teams in the league," captain Nick Foligno said. "We have to start realizing we're one of them. That's not to be arrogant. It's just the reality of what we've grown into here. Be proud of that, but know how hard it is to win."

It's not like last season, when the Jackets rattled off a 16-game winning streak and didn't have a slew of injuries to manage. Injuries are already piling up this season, and they haven't played their 20th game yet.

During practice Monday at the OhioHealth Ice Haus, the Jackets were without center Alexander Wennberg and three other forwards who are all on injured reserve: Matt Calvert (upper body), Lukas Sedlak (ankle) and Zac Dalpe (upper body).

Wennberg, who's day-to-day with an upper-body injury, didn't make the trip and will miss the game Tuesday against the Montreal Canadiens. Dalpe was placed on IR Monday and will miss his fourth straight game.

Columbus recalled forward Jordan Schroeder from Cleveland of the American Hockey League on Monday - a nice bandage - but this roster is significantly different from the one the Blue Jackets had to start out. They're down three centers plus Calvert, their best penalty-killing forward.

The NHL, however, has no sympathy. Teams won't take the Blue Jackets lightly now just because they have some dents showing.

"We can't control how other teams prepare for us now," coach John Tortorella said. "I think other teams prepare better for us, because we didn't have any respect last year. So, that is part of the problem. And that's understanding you just don't go back-to-back years where ... things kind of fell into place [last year]. I say that very carefully, because I think we earned everything that we got last year, but it's just, you're going to have to fight through some stuff this year."

Injuries, for instance, along with slow starts for a number of players. Neither affected the Jackets through their first 14 games, when they set a franchise record with 19 points, but it eventually caught up.

Columbus went 1-1-1 on a three-game road trip that started Nov. 2 in Sunrise, Fla., and watched that balloon into a four-game winless skid (0-3-1). They just ended that against the Detroit Red Wings on Saturday in Detroit, in a nine-round shootout.

"What we're doing here, I think it will make us a better team and a better organization as we grow, going through some of this stuff," Tortorella said. "And this isn't even adversity to me. We're going to face some tougher [stuff] than this, losing a few games. [Stuff] happens, and we're going to have to deal with it. We have injuries. We've got a number of guys nicked up, [who] are playing, [and] we didn't have to go through some of it early on last year. So, I think eventually it's going to be really good and put some skin on us, as we get into the tough time of the year."

Foligno thinks there's already enough thick skin in the Columbus locker room. He thinks it's time for the Blue Jackets to take the next step of simply expecting to win, no matter the circumstances.

"That's what I tell people," Foligno said, prior to the win in Detroit. "It's one thing when you have the flash in the pan years, but consistently doing it is playing to an identity each and every time. Right now, we're fighting that. We're fighting who we are. And we know who we are, and that's the disappointing part. It's on us as leaders in that room to pull guys along, and myself included. I haven't been good enough. It's disappointing and it's going to change."

The good news is that Columbus is still positioned well within the Metropolitan Division, sitting second with 21 points prior to games Monday. The goal is keep forging that identity.

"Last year, we were out to prove people wrong, because we really hadn't done anything," veteran forward Cam Atkinson said. "We hadn't won anything. We still haven't won anything, but we had a good regular season last year and got knocked out in the first round of the playoffs. So, I think we definitely made strides, but I think we need to get back to playing with a chip, playing with that swagger."

The next chance they'll get is Tuesday against the Canadiens, who've gone 7-3-0 since getting off to a 1-6-1 start. Montreal appears to be hitting an early stride now, despite star goalie Carey Price missing the past four games with a lower-body injury.

The Blue Jackets may want to glance in the mirror before taking the ice.

"It's the mentality of knowing who you are when you start the game, and knowing what you need to get to, in order to have success," Foligno said. "We still flirt with that idea of, 'Are we a skill team?' but there's a mandate of hard work and a certain style that we still need to play, and skill complements that. It's not the other way around."

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