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Metropolitan Division notebook

Blue Jackets arguably biggest surprise in NHL; Penguins goalie Matt Murray quiet Calder contender

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

About a quarter into the season, the Columbus Blue Jackets have been, perhaps, the biggest surprise in the NHL.

Through their first 20 games, the Blue Jackets are 11-5-4 with 26 points, which is good for the first wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Eastern Conference. It's also the second-best record through 20 games in Blue Jackets history, behind their 14-6-0 start in 2010-11.

They missed the playoffs that season, and they still have a lot of work to do to qualify this season. But after last season, when they lost their first eight games, were 7-13-0 through 20 and finished 27th in the League standings at 34-40-8, there's a different feel in Columbus so far.

"Last year was weird," Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said. "We felt we had a good team last year too and we got off to a 0-8 start. If you get kicked in the midsection and you try to get up and fight, it's pretty hard. Then, once you lose the hope of making the playoffs, then it becomes real hard towards the end of the year. But we were much better than the 27th place team last year. I think we're better this year.

"It's a good start for us, but we're a team that every night we have to prove we're for real."

Video: NYR@CBJ: Calvert nets shorthanded goal on two-on-one

This is not a position the Blue Jackets have been in recently. They also had a big hole to climb out of in 2014-15 because of a slew of injuries that contributed to a 6-15-2 start.

But with each win they are gaining confidence, which is important for a team with 12 players age 24 or younger.

"Winning breeds winning and confidence and all those type of things. That's natural," Kekalainen said. "That's what a young group needs in particular, but I'm still a big believer that let's approach every day as, 'What can we do to get better?' We keep saying that in the locker room. We keep talking about it. Let's just get to work every day like this is our business and see these young guys grow, and then we'll come together and grow as a team."

In the past, the foot fracture that sidelined defenseman Seth Jones for six games might have derailed the Blue Jackets, but they went 5-1-0 in his absence with rookie defenseman Zach Werenski picking up some of the slack. Werenski, 19, has emerged as the power-play quarterback the Blue Jackets desperately needed and ranks fourth among all rookies with 16 points (five goals, 11 assists).

Another big reason for the Blue Jackets' success so far has been a return to form by goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, who is 11-5-2 with a 2.15 goals-against average, .929 save percentage and three shutouts. Bobrovsky, 28, struggled while battling through recurring groin problems last season, going 15-19-1 with a 2.75 GAA, a .908 save percentage and one shutout.

Healthy now, Bobrovsky looks more like the goaltender who won the Vezina Trophy in 2012-13. Kekalainen saw signs that Bobrovsky was ready to rebound by watching him play for Team Russia at the World Cup of Hockey 2016 in September.

"I think he needed a fresh start," Kekalainen said. "He had to get his confidence back. He's always working so hard on the physical side of the game. I also know he works hard on the mental side of the game. But with him too success builds your confidence and that's what he needed."

 

Don't forget Murray

Though Werenski has been flying under the radar in the discussion among Calder Trophy favorites through the first quarter of the season, Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Matt Murray is barely on the map.

Murray, 22, seems to be forgotten because he played in 21 playoff games last season and won the Stanley Cup, but those playoff games don't count against his Calder eligibility. His 13 regular-season NHL games last season left him well under the 25-game maximum to be eligible for the Calder this season.

Video: PIT@NYR: Murray makes a sprawling stop to deny Nash

After sitting out the Penguins' first nine games because of a hand fracture he sustained at the World Cup, Murray is 7-1-0 with a 1.75 GAA, a .939 save percentage and one shutout. If he does win the Calder Trophy after winning the Stanley Cup, he'd be the first player to do so since Montreal Canadiens goaltender Ken Dryden won the Cup and Conn Smythe Trophy after playing in six regular-season games in 1970-71 and winning the Calder in 1971-72.

Right wing Danny Grant and goaltender Tony Esposito also won the Calder Trophy the season after they won the Stanley Cup. Grant won the Cup with Montreal in 1967-68 and the Calder with the Minnesota North Stars win 1968-69. Esposito won the Cup with the Canadiens in 1968-69 and the Calder with the Chicago Blackhawks 1969-70.

 

Stat pack

When Penguins captain Sidney Crosby scored the tying goal with 14 seconds remaining in the third period of a 4-3 shootout win against the New Jersey Devils on Saturday, it was the sixth time in his NHL career he scored either a tying or go-ahead goal in final 60 seconds of regulation, according to Elias Sports Bureau. … Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin needs one more power-play goal to become the 18th player in NHL history to score 200. … Left wing Michael Cammalleri has scored goals in three consecutive games (four goals, four assists) since returning to the Devils lineup on Nov. 23 following a leave of absence when his daughter was hospitalized for pneumonia. … Alain Vigneault will coach in his 270th game with the New York Rangers against the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday, moving him ahead of Colin Campbell into ninth place on their all-time list. The late Roger Neilson is in eighth place with 280 games coached.

 

Games to watch

Carolina Hurricanes at New York Rangers (Nov. 29, 7 p.m. ET; SNE, SNP, MSG, FS-CR, NHL.TV) -- The Hurricanes won three of their first 13 games (3-6-4), but one of those three victories was a 3-2 triumph against the Rangers on Oct. 28 in Raleigh, North Carolina. Now they've turned things around and are 6-2-0 in their past eight.

Detroit Red Wings at New York Islanders (Dec. 4, 6 p.m. ET; MSG+, FS-D, NHL.TV) --  Forward Frans Nielsen returns to Barclays Center to face the Islanders for the first time since leaving them to sign with the Red Wings as an unrestricted free agent on July 1.

New York Rangers at New York Islanders (Dec. 6, 7 p.m. ET; SN1, SNO, MSG+, MSG2, NHL.TV) -- The Rangers and the Islanders play for the first time since the Rangers' 5-3 win to open the season at Madison Square Garden on Oct. 13.

Pittsburgh Penguins at Tampa Bay Lightning (Dec. 10, 7 p.m. ET; SUN, ROOT, NHL.TV) -- A rematch of the 2016 Eastern Conference Final, which the Penguins won in seven games on their way to winning the Stanley Cup for the fourth time.

New Jersey Devils at New York Rangers (Dec. 11, 7 p.m. ET: MSG, MSG+, NHL.TV) -- The first game of the season between the Hudson River rivals.

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