The Columbus Blue Jackets were tied with the Carolina Hurricanes for the first wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Eastern Conference when the NHL paused its season due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus March 12.
It's a place not many predicted the Blue Jackets would be when the season started, and even less with the amount of long-term injuries they've endured, including to forwards Josh Anderson (44 games), Cam Atkinson (26), Oliver Bjorkstrand (21), and Alexander Wennberg (12), defenseman Seth Jones (14), and goalie Joonas Korpisalo (24).
"It's been a crazy year that way (with all the injuries), but when it first started happening, we made a pact amongst ourselves that we're not going to spend a lot of time talking about it," Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella told "Hockey Central at Noon" on Wednesday. "I know it's a little cliché that the next man's up, but we've dipped into our minor league team, and I have to give Mike Eaves (coach of Cleveland of the American Hockey League), the staff, and quite honestly the organization a ton of credit in how much depth we've had to dip into. And we found our way, we have stayed competitive."
The Blue Jackets (33-22-15) started 12-14-6 and were seventh in the Metropolitan Division before getting at least one point in 21 of their next 23 games (18-2-3) from Dec. 16-Feb. 7 to move into third.
The run was fueled by Elvis Merzlikins, who stepped up as the No. 1 goalie after Korpisalo sustained a knee injury that required surgery Dec. 29. The rookie went 12-5-4 with a 1.97 goals-against average, .935 save percentage and five shutouts in 21 games before Korpisalo returned Feb. 24.
"This year, it's been an eye-opener to me, and it's really kind of knocked me back a little bit and made me realize that if you just try to play under a team concept, and you have a team play as a team, I think you can compete in the League," Tortorella said. "I think sometimes we get caught up in the star power and this individual player or that individual player carrying a team. We've had to play as a team, and it's been really rewarding for all of us just to see that you can stay competitive going about your business that way."
Video: NYR@CBJ: Merzlikins slides across to stone Zibanejad
Although the Blue Jackets lost 12 of 15 games before the pause (3-6-6), they were still in position to qualify for the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season.
"You know before the break, we were faltering a little bit," Tortorella said. "We were struggling, but I think we were starting to gain our traction right before we were shut down. I give our scouts, I give our organization a ton of credit, and the coaching staff down there in Cleveland, where these guys have come up, and it's been pretty seamless in them understanding how we play and just going about their business."
Whether the Blue Jackets will get the opportunity to hold onto their playoff spot remains to be seen.
"I just don't know where it all goes still, how long it's going to be. I don't think anybody knows what's going to happen," Tortorella said. "As I watch the news daily and hear about where these pockets are and where it's all going to go, it's really hard to pinpoint what we should do. I know the League wants to try to get to something to where there's a finale to our season, but who knows where the [heck] it goes as far as how long this is going to take. The way I look at it -- I try to separate myself as a hockey coach in the League -- this is a world health situation. That's the biggest concern we have to have right now. Hockey comes after it.
"Having said that, I already have different types of scenarios for my camp, a little mini-camp to try to get going again. I already have that written down if we get at it because I'm concerned about all the injuries and all the things that could happen to players if you don't prepare them correctly. We're ready to go in situations, I just don't know what that situation's going to be."