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Belief has been big part of Blue Jackets' impressive season

Looking back at how Columbus came together over the past few months

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider /

Time will tell what the final legacy of the 2019-20 Blue Jackets will be. 

One thing is for sure, though -- many people won't forget the resolve shown by this Columbus team. 

That includes John Tortorella. 

The head coach has manned the helm for NHL teams in 19 different seasons, not to mention four years as a minor league head man and 10 more as an NHL assistant. 

In other words, he's just about seen it all, but this Blue Jackets team has provided Tortorella with a reminder of a few things. 

"When we went on that run … as an old coach in this league, it really woke me up on how you play as a team, how important that is," Tortorella said last week. "We talked about it all the time. It's coachspeak, we have to play as a team and this and that and the whole thing. But we really had to dial in and everybody buy into the concept that we're trying to play. You could see how guys started believing." 

By now, the outline of a season now in pause is well known. After Columbus won just 11 of its first 29 games, seemingly validating theories around the league that free-agent losses would cripple the squad, the season turned around, with the Blue Jackets earning points in 24 of the next 26 games to vault back into playoff contention. As that happened, the Blue Jackets were also dealing with a tremendous run of injuries, with a new player seemingly going down every night for a stretch of December while Columbus racked up wins.  

Then came the second wave of injuries in early February, one that included such names as Cam Atkinson, Oliver Bjorkstrand and Seth Jones. Finally, that seemed to make a dent in the results the team was putting together, but a string of overtime losses and some gutty wins down the stretch gave Columbus enough points to be in a playoff spot when the NHL world stopped last week.  

To many -- from observers around the NHL to fans of the team -- the question was simple.  

How did they do that? 

Looking back at the season unearths a few answers.  

Leadership: Certainly, Tortorella and the team's leadership have had a lot to do with it. The head coach has refused to let excuses into the dressing room, challenging everything from the concept that his team would be tired playing its eighth game in 13 days at Minnesota late last month to the very existence of the injuries' impact on the lineup. 

Of course, they were there -- the Blue Jackets led the NHL with 419 man-games lost to injury going into last Thursday's scheduled game vs. Pittsburgh and had a chance to match the franchise record of 508 set in 2015-16 -- but Tortorella has been consistent in saying the team doesn't even address the missing players. Instead, the team would put its 18 players on the ice and play the game each time. 

"We don't even talk about it. We just play," Tortorella said in mid-February. "First thing in the morning when I come in, I put the lineup on the board, that's who's playing. That's how we go about our business." 

It's a message the Blue Jackets players have taken to heart as the season has gone on. 

"It's been a crazy year that way, but we just try not to think about it," forward Gus Nyquist said. "Next man up." 

Some new blood: Speaking of next man up, the Blue Jackets have had players move into key roles they likely wouldn't have expected when the season began. 

The goaltending duo of Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins has become the rock of the team, while such players as Kevin Stenlund, Eric Robinson and Andrew Peeke among others have become critical parts of the lineup after starting the year in the minor leagues.  

In fact, at times, Tortorella pointed to the injuries as something that helped the team come together even though some of the more talented members of the Blue Jackets roster were out. In particular, the head coach pointed to one unsung player who helped cement the mind-set of the squad in Nathan Gerbe. 

The longtime pro was called up in late December amid the injury struggles and used his intensity, preparation and ability to relate to both team veterans and rookies to in some ways unite the squad. 

"I look at what Gerbs has brought us here, just how he carries himself, just how he plays," Tortorella said in January. "I think that helps the glue of the team and how you're supposed to play the game." 

In general, though, the head coach took a lesson from the way hunger and belief worked their way from the inexperienced players to the veterans.  

"You have personnel come up with six or seven guys coming from our minor league team and seeing an opportunity and saying, 'Man, I have a chance here to show what I can do and maybe stick,'" Tortorella said in late January. "You have a different mind-set from a guy that has been here and scored a bunch of goals or did whatever he's done, sometimes you lost a little bit of that edge. I think this defines how you can get some business done, and the most important thing is playing as a team. 

"It's a great lesson for our organization, great lessons for individual players who have stature and a little bit of entitlement vs. what this team is going on about right now as far as just guys hanging on here, doing everything they can do stay here and help this team win, thinking of the team. ... I think it's a great lesson. That's the coolest thing about what's going on with the club right now." 

While the Blue Jackets have cycled players in and out of the lineup with consistency since December, Foligno said that hasn't stopped the team from finding a bond. That's in large part because of how long the team's core players have been together and experienced success, which has allowed the group to assimilate new additions with ease. 

"You just have this confidence when you look over at each other," he said. "You know what the next guy is going to do. You know what that guy is thinking. That's just being a team for a little while here that has had some success and understood each other. We've all gone through the grind together. It's incredible how tight we've become, and then you have the guys even mixed in with Cleveland and come up and just jumped right in because they have the same understanding. 

"That cohesiveness has really helped us bridge that gap and weather the storm of injuries." 

A mind-set: There have been some strategic factors to the team's success. The offseason slew of losses to free agency forced Tortorella to create a plan to win based on a strong forecheck and positional play. The ensuing injuries led to even more of a focus on defensive identity.  

But what has really impressed Tortorella is how the team has practiced what he has preached. 

Simply, the team has not allowed the adversity to define it. In fact, mental strength has become the hallmark of this Blue Jackets team.  

"It has been so cool for me to watch a group of men or a group of young kids buy in and believe each and every day and see themselves in the race here," Tortorella said. "That's been -- you know how I feel about mind-set. That overrides X's and O's. That overrides so much in our game, and I think our guys have lived through that.  

"I think for some of the young guys, you're always talking about skill and scoring goals and how you pass the puck and all that, but the mind is so important. We've lived in that world, and I think it's really helped some guys understanding really what that is about." 

Again, time will tell the next time the union blue will be able to skate together on the ice, and the team could have a different look if players are able to return to health. There are more questions to be answered in that regard, but when it comes to the Blue Jackets, questions about this franchise's mental toughness and overall have been answered.

A core doubted by many when the season began has to this point proved it's still on the right track.  

"In some ways with all the injuries and all the question marks on this team, I think it's been a little bit of motivation for this group that people still count us out with the way we've played," Foligno said in February. "We're a really confident group in here and have a belief." 

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