For those of you unfamiliar with tonight's opponent, the Columbus Blue Jackets have actually been in the NHL since 2000. Hard to credit I know. According to their Wikipedia page, the Blue Jackets replaced the Columbus Chill of the ECHL as a result of NHL expansion, although you would be forgiven for having assumed that they continued to operate as an ECHL franchise.
Given the mysterious quality of this unknown Eastern Conference team, we've invited Eric St. John of Blue Jacket's SB Nation blog The Cannon to fill us in on a few of the important things. Is Sergei Bobrovsky currently on or off the force? Is Jack Johnson borrowing money from Ryan Johansen? Is Jack Johnson's mother borrowing money from Ryan Johansen? Are the Blue Jackets as satisfied by their new mascot as they were by the old one?
Read on and find out everything you ever wanted to know about the Columbus Blue Jackets (except the answers to the above questions)...
Defending Big D: About a month ago when I last checked in on the Blue Jackets, they were propping up the basement of the Eastern Conference, making even teams like the Sabres and Hurricanes look good. Since then though they've gone 10-1-1. So much for getting to talk about how terrible your team is this season... What changed?
Cannon: The injuries *sort of* stopped in December. Two forwards who really drive the team - Boone Jenner (since gone back to IR) and Brandon Dubinsky - returned to the lineup. There still isn't a ton of scoring up front outside of Johansen and Foligno, but the blue line has picked up some of that slack, including newcomer, cough, Kevin Connauton [Ed. note: Who?]. The biggest difference has been a healthy, Vezina-worthy goaltender in Sergei Bobrovsky. Bob finally got his finger fully healed (catching hand) and went nuts in December, good enough for the NHL's 3rd star of the month going 9-1-1 with a 2.14 GAA and .937 save percentage. He's carried the team the last month.
DBD: Ok. Just kidding. Let's talk about how terrible your team is this season. Positive numbers in the fancy stats department seem to be an issue for you guys, even during the recent winning streak. No seriously, look at that link. One game in that whole streak! So what's really holding the Jackets together? Officer Bobrovsky? Ryan Johansen out to prove something?
Cannon: When Bob is healthy and on (like he was in December), he is the great equalizer on the back end, especially for a lineup that seems to change weekly with all the injuries. The play has been...largely ugly otherwise. The team is #1 on the power play at 24+%. 5 on 5 scoring though...ouch. [Ed. note: Ouch indeed. Hello again Buffalo and Carolina!]
Johansen was on a tear early in the season, but in December he netted just one empty net goal. He has provided some key assists and shootout goals, but he isn't necessarily taking games over. Some fans think he may be injured and therefore "coasting." But he's been playing 20-21 minutes a night (on the PK, PP, and carrying the top line without his usual wingers).
So the easy answer is Bob playing like his Vezina-self. A couple guys stand out to me in turning this thing around - Dubinsky and Foligno. These guys are vocal and providing leadership in a young dressing room. They both do a little bit of everything as well and they've been leading by example recently.
DBD: Before this season the Dallas Stars unveiled their new mascot, Victor E. Green. The unveiling of a new NHL mascot must always provoke sweet nostalgic thoughts of your own one-time mascot, Boomer the Cannon. Any favorite stories or photos of Boomer?
[Ed. note: This response has been flagged for sensitive content.]
DBD: Dallas and Columbus both sit low in the league in goals against average. Very low. Should we expect the Stars to score another 6 or 7 goals in the game like they did this week against Arizona and Minnesota? What are you expecting to see in this game, and fill us in on the typical style of play of the Blue Jackets.
Cannon: Ha, the high GAA is definitely not the style Todd Richards wants to play. It depends on who is net - Bob was chased from the game in his most recent start at Arizona, but Curtis McElhinney is very shaky as his backup. It will likely be Bobrovsky, and if he returns to his December self, it will tough for Dallas to get to 3+ goals. I don't expect the Jackets to light it up offensively. Probably a 3-2 type game, if we even get to that many goals. (Of course, the Jackets just scored 4 in Colorado and lit up Boston for 6 goals before the calendar flipped) [Ed. note: Every blogger ever always predicts a 3-2 game, thus I'm going to pretend you predicted a 7-5 Stars win. In which case I'll say, good call! Can't wait!]
The last month or so, as I mentioned earlier, the Jackets haven't played all that pretty. They will likely give up more shots than they generate. Bob will come up with some big saves. They will likely generate a goal off a PP. Nearly every game in December you could look at the shot chart, Fenwick, Corsi, etc. and say, "Columbus probably didn't win this one," yet they took 21 of 24 points [Ed. note: I blame Gary Bettman.]. They want to roll four lines and forecheck hard, but the bottom six is a bit in shambles right now. Todd Richards is relying heavily on his top 6 in all situations, and the bottom six tend to just take up some ice time with not much of an impact on the game. Richards would like to balance out the ice time more, but he plays who he trusts. Expect to see a lot of Johansen, Dubinsky, Foligno, Hartnell, and Calvert.
Obscene Alex and DBD: What have you been feeding Kevin Connauton? And you're welcome by the way. Got any thoughts to make us really rue the loss of our favorite press box defenseman?
Cannon: Kevin has been given a steady diet of ice time (16:26 a game) and beets. And yeah, thanks for waiving him. He's stepped in really nicely. In fact, I think he could be a Norris Trophy candidate next season.
Kidding aside [Ed. note: Sorry guys. Eric's obviously new here. We don't ever put kidding aside.], he's stepped up with some huge goals (game-winners, in some cases) and assists. The staff really likes him and he's getting some bottom pair ice time and will fill in on the power play when needed. It remains to be seen if this is the typical "change of scenery" bump or if the front office really found a diamond in the waiver wire rough. He has 5-4-9 in 17 games with the Jackets. Not bad, eh? [Ed. note: *grumble grumble*]
DBD: Injuries. Ya'll have had a fair few. Talk to me about how that's shaped the season.
Cannon: It's been THE story in Columbus. Both goalies have missed time. Every forward has been injured, save for two (Johansen and Boll). Only David Savard has played every game on the blue line. The team and fans have accepted Nathan Horton will likely never play competitive hockey again. Ryan Murray is supposed to be a young, top 4 defenseman but there are few updates on his situation with his knee. It's not just that there have been 230 some odd man games lost, it's that nearly every key contributor has missed time. The center depth was so bad for a couple weeks that Nick Folingo pinched in at the pivot, a position he hasn't played since his junior season.
Just as a couple guys come back, someone else goes down. The tide seems to have stopped for now, with *just* seven regulars out. Cam Atkinson and Mark Letestu are due back this week and Brian Gibbons isn't too far behind. But with so many injuries, it has a trickle down effect. Projected fourth liners are forced to fill in a line or two up. Anisimov and Letestu (and Dubinsky when he was out) are big contributors on the PK. Richards has had to look to Johansen and Foligno in that role, and they rarely played on the kill the last couple years. December showed the fight the team has, and they're pushing through it. It's been pretty remarkable, especially since there were nights when 10 or 11 regulars were out with injuries for a stretch. But this team at 100% likely will never be witnessed on the ice this year.
OA: And lastly, my great great great grandfather fought in an Ohio Union regiment in the Civil War. What street cred does this get me in Nationwide Arena?
Cannon: We can probably get you on the wait list to fire off the cannon in the Arena.
(There is no wait list. Nationwide Arena Marketing Department: call me.)