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Blue Jackets use strong start to surge into playoffs

16-game winning streak, John Tortorella help Columbus clinch third-ever postseason berth

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

Few outside the Columbus Blue Jackets locker room expected them to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs this season after they finished 27th in the NHL standings in 2015-16.

But they became the second team to clinch a playoff berth this season by defeating the New Jersey Devils 4-1 on Sunday. It will be the Blue Jackets' third playoff appearance in their 17-season history, first since 2014.

The Blue Jackets (47-18-6, 100 points) are tied with the Washington Capitals for first place in the Metropolitan Division, Eastern Conference and League standings. They already have established team records for wins and points, and are looking to add to them during their final 11 regular-season games while pursuing the Presidents' Trophy and home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs.

[Related: Blue Jackets return to Stanley Cup Playoffs] 

But they're also perilously close to third place in the division and beginning the playoffs on the road. The Pittsburgh Penguins are one point behind them, so they can't afford to let up now.

"The guys have worked hard all year and [coach John Tortorella] said it. … It's just the start of things for us, the start of our new road," left wing Matt Calvert told the Blue Jackets website. "We've got to finish out the regular season hard and prepare ourselves for the playoffs now."

[Related: Blue Jackets set sights on Presidents' Trophy]

Here are five reasons the Blue Jackets clinched:

 

1. A strong start

The Blue Jackets' 2015-16 season was doomed from the start. They lost their first eight games (0-8-0), coach Todd Richards was fired after seven games, and they never recovered.

This season, the Blue Jackets lost their first two games (0-2-0) but rebounded to go 10-2-2 in their next 14. That launched them into a position to be one of the League's biggest surprises.

A 16-game winning streak from Nov. 29 through Jan. 3 put them in first place in the NHL standings. Even when they sagged, going 6-8-1 in their next 15 games, they never lost more than two in row. They remain the only team not to lose three straight this season. 

Video: 16 great plays from the Blue Jackets' historic streak

 

2. John Tortorella

When Tortorella took over the Blue Jackets seven games into last season, he sensed they needed a culture change. "It stunk of entitlement," he said in January. "It stunk of a lousy standard, quite honestly."

But Tortorella also had to adjust his approach and learn to trust his players. He gave them some freedom to attack offensively and to make mistakes. They responded to that trust and flourished, helping Tortorella become one of the leading contenders for the Jack Adams Award.

"Guys have bought into his systems and the way he does things," center Brandon Dubinsky said. "We had a full training camp with him and there's probably nobody better in the League that gets their team prepared for a season with the training camps he does. … Look at the way we started the season and where we're at. You can attribute a lot of that to conditioning and his approach as far as the start of the year."

 

3. Scoring depth

Unlike the Penguins with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, and the Capitals with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, the Blue Jackets don't have any big-name scorers. They do their scoring by committee, with right wing Cam Atkinson leading the way with 33 goals and 60 points.

Columbus has 11 players with at least 10 goals, including defensemen Zach Werenski (11) and Seth Jones (10). Sam Gagner, who has rekindled his career with 18 goals, and Scott Hartnell, who has 13, have spent time playing together on the fourth line.

Captain Nick Foligno has rebounded from 12 goals last season to score 24 this season. Center Alexander Wennberg, 22, is tied for 13th in the League with 42 assists.

Video: CBJ@BUF: Foligno shows off hands, beats Nilsson

 

4. Sergei Bobrovsky

After struggling last season with groin issues, the Blue Jackets goaltender lost 17 pounds in the offseason and reduced his muscle mass to increase his flexibility. The result has been a return to the form that helped him win the Vezina Trophy in 2012-13.

Bobrovsky, 28, leads the NHL with 39 wins and a 2.04 goals-against average, is second with a .931 save percentage (minimum 25 games), and is tied for third with six shutouts.

"You see it all the time that the teams that win and teams that go far in the playoffs get unbelievable goaltending," Dubinsky said. "He's our most important player. He's going to be leaned on a lot, and if he can stand tall the way he has so far I really like our chances to make a good run."

Video: CBJ@NJD: Bobrovsky denies Devils with two quick saves

 

5. Zach Werenski

Overshadowed in the Calder Trophy discussion by Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Patrik Laine of the Winnipeg Jets, Werenski, 19, quietly has been one of the most impactful rookies in the NHL. 

He's tied for fifth among rookies and leads rookie defensemen with 46 points (11 goals, 35 assists). He's already broken the Blue Jackets rookie record for points and is closing in on James Wisniewski's record for most points by a defenseman in a season with 51 in 2013-14. Werenski's 21 power-play points (four goals, 17 assists) are second among rookies and are tied with Atkinson for second on the Blue Jackets behind Wennberg's 22.

Together with Jones, who was acquired in a trade with the Nashville Predators for center Ryan Johansen on Jan. 6, 2016, Werenski has helped transform the Blue Jackets defense into a strength at both ends of the ice.

Video: FLA@CBJ: Werenski nets beautiful sharp-angle goal

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