No one expected the Columbus Blue Jackets to be in this position at the All-Star Break. No one, that is, except the Blue Jackets themselves.
The Blue Jackets head into their game at the New York Rangers on Tuesday (7 p.m. ET; MSG 2, FS-O, NHL.TV) in second place in the Metropolitan Division with 68 points in 48 games. They are four points behind the first-place Washington Capitals and three points ahead of the third-place Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Capitals and Penguins probably are right where most people predicted they would be.
Then there's the Blue Jackets.
"It's great that finally we're not the underdog anymore; teams are starting to show us a little more respect," forward Cam Atkinson said. "But that being said, teams aren't taking us so lightly anymore. We have to kind of embrace that and accept the challenge and be ready to go."
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The Blue Jackets are where they are largely because of a 16-game winning streak that lasted from Nov. 29 to Jan. 5. But that streak was not going to last forever, and the Blue Jackets have struggled to find their game since then. They are 5-7-0 in their past 12 games since that streak ended with a 5-0 loss at the Capitals on Jan. 5.
It is one thing to expect great things of yourselves, but it can become difficult to manage when others expect great things of you as well.
The Blue Jackets are a young team; 11 regulars are under 25, and managing expectations becomes that much more difficult when you don't have much experience doing it.
"I think we're learning on the fly here. We're a young team," defenseman Seth Jones said. "Our [coaching] staff's doing a great job of trying to get us through the situation. Obviously when you go on a 16-game win streak you feel like you're on top of the world and nothing can go wrong. Then you kind of come back down to earth a little bit and realize that's going to end at some point. We're around .500 this month, not where we'd like to be after a month like last month."
Atkinson, Jones and goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, who represented the Blue Jackets at the 2017 Honda NHL All-Star Game at Staples Center in Los Angeles, were unanimous in their praise of coach John Tortorella and the way he has helped guide a young team to this point. But the Blue Jackets' upcoming schedule might be Tortorella's biggest challenge of the season.
Starting Tuesday against the Rangers, the Blue Jackets will play what could be a season-defining stretch of 15 games. Nine of them will be against teams that were sitting in a spot to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs at the All-Star break and seven will come against division opponents, including three against the Rangers and two against the Penguins.
That's why the break came at a perfect time for the Blue Jackets.
"For us at the time it was probably the best thing that could have happened to our team," captain Nick Foligno said. "We got away, got to reflect, recover and then get ready for a push that every team is feeling. I think now we feel like we're in the same boat."
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There are many reasons why the Blue Jackets suddenly find themselves in that boat.
Tortorella is one, Atkinson and his 24 goals are another, and a young defense corps led by Jones and Calder Trophy candidate Zach Werenski is yet another.
There are other reasons, but topping the list is the play of Bobrovsky, who is 28-9-2 with a 2.10 goals-against average and .929 save percentage, making him a legitimate candidate to win the Vezina Trophy for the second time. Bobrovsky had a difficult, injury-riddled season in 2015-16 and put up his worst numbers since coming to Columbus from the Philadelphia Flyers in a trade for three draft picks on June 22, 2012.
Bobrovsky said the biggest adjustment he has made is a mental one, not taking hockey so seriously and not putting massive pressure on himself to perform. By not worrying about it as much, his performance has improved dramatically.
"It's more about balancing your life between hard work and rest, relaxing and when to be intense," he said. "It's mentally a big change. I just enjoy every game, I enjoy every practice, I enjoy every time I'm in the rink.
"All athletes are very competitive, and obviously you go there to win. But if you're too much thinking about wins it doesn't always work that way. So you just try to go in the game and give yourself the best chance for success."
At a time when his young team needs to find a way to start winning again, Bobrovsky's formula for his own success might not be bad advice for his teammates.