Detroit Red Wings’ Ruslan Salei, right, congratulates Todd Bertuzzi on his goal against the Edmonton Oilers during the third period of an NHL hockey game in Edmonton, Alberta, on Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2011. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, John Ulan)
Coming off of a season where they finished with the fourth-worst record in the league, expectations were remarkably low for the Columbus Blue Jackets entering this season. Being on the outside of the playoff picture for the third year in a row seemed like a given. Being one of the worst teams in the league again, if not the worst team, seemed like a real possibility.
But entering play on Saturday they have been, by far, the NHL’s biggest surprise with a 13-5-4 record through their first 22 games, putting them in third place in the Metropolitan Division just one point behind the Pittsburgh Penguins, and only three points behind the New York Rangers with multiple games in hand on both teams. It is still the best start in the history of the franchise.
Let’s take a look at what is behind their newfound success.
Sergei Bobrovsky is back
One of the biggest factors in Columbus’ miserable start a year ago was the struggles of starting goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. A former Vezina Trophy winner, the 2015-16 season was by far Bobrovsky’s worst campaign since arriving in Columbus. So far this season, he is back on track and once again playing like one of the top goalies in the league.
In 20 starts this season he owns a .929 save percentage and has already recorded three shutouts.
At this point last season he was carrying around a .905 save percentage and talking about how he had little confidence in his game.
How much of a difference is that swing in his performance making? A massive one. He has faced an almost identical number of shots through his first 20 starts (562 in 2015-16, 566 this year), but the difference in his performance has shaved 13 goals off of the Blue Jackets’ goals against total. Add 13 goals to that total right now and they go from second in the NHL, all the way down to 15th. That alone has to be worth a couple of wins.
Goaltending is the great equalizer in hockey, and if you have a good one, or one that is simply on an incredible hot streak, it is going to mask a lot of flaws. Likewise, a goaltender that is struggling can make an otherwise good team think it has a lot of problems.
Some young talent is making a big impact
One of the biggest concerns with the construction of the Blue Jackets’ roster entering the season was the amount of money they had tied up in veteran players that were starting to get into their late 20s or early 30s and how little some of them had produced a year ago. Nick Foligno. Scott Hartnell. Brandon Dubinsky. Jack Johnson. Long-term some of those contracts are still a concern (though, Foligno is having a nice bounce back season with 20 points in 22 games), but what is really helping Columbus this season is the number of young players that have stepped into the lineup and are making huge contributions.
Six of the team’s top-10 scorers, including three of the top-five, are age 24 or younger.
Among that group is 19-year-old Zach Werenski who has been a huge addition to the team’s blue line. With 16 points he is the leading scorer in the NHL among rookie defensemen and is one of the best possession drivers on the team.
Up front, Alexander Wennberg, the team’s first-round pick in 2013 (No. 14 overall) is taking a huge step in his development and has seen his production skyrocket across the board while playing alongside Brandon Saad and Foligno.
Even though his minutes have been limited and coach John Tortorella still wants to see more consistency out of him, 22-year-old Josh Anderson already has seven goals on the year.
There is probably a little bit of luck on their side
When trying to figure out if a team is for real or not there are a couple of underlying signs you need to look for.
For example: A team that is getting badly outshot and is winning because of a sky high shooting percentage or save percentage (or both) is probably a team that is getting a lot of good luck and is setting itself up for a big collapse in the future (take, for example, the 2013 Toronto Maple Leafs. Or the 2014 Colorado Avalanche. Or the 2015 Calgary Flames).
And while that is not entirely the case with the Blue Jackets right now, they have been a little on the lucky side so far.
Their shot on goal and shot attempts numbers are decent and have them around the middle of the pack in the league, but there is still probably a regression coming in the future when it comes to their offense which is currently tied for sixth in the league in goals scored.
At the moment they are scoring on nearly 11 percent of their shots, while five individual players are carrying shooting percentages higher than 15 percent. Those are all numbers that are likely to drop as the season goes on. It’s just too hard, both for teams and individuals, to maintain that type of shooting success over the course of an 82 game season. Over the past five years only 11 teams (total) have finished an 82-game season with a shooting percentage higher than 10 percent, and none have been over 11. In 2015-16 only 32 individual players (minimum 100 shots) finished the season with a shooting percentage higher than 15 percent. Again, the Blue Jackets right now have five of them. Some of that is going to regress a bit.
But again, they also aren’t the 2013 Maple Leafs or the 2014 Avalanche here when it comes to luck. They are keeping teams to less than 30 shots on goal per game, and while their possession numbers are not great, they are not exactly overly concerning, either. They are probably not playing that far over their heads at the moment.
As long as Bobrovsky stays healthy and keeps playing like the goalie he’s been for most of the past five years (the 2015-16 season excluded) they are going to have a shot to hang around in this thing.
A bad first period was enough to send the Montreal Canadiens to a 2-1 loss to the Sharks on Friday night, extending the franchise’s losing streak in San Jose to 10 consecutive games going back to the 1999 season.
The star of the game has to be Sharks goalie Martin Jones for his 31-save effort, including a couple of highlight reel saves throughout the night. One of his best came in the first period when he absolutely robbed Alex Galchenyuk with a fancy glove save.
The Sharks really needed Jones to be on top of his game to get the win.
For as good as they looked in the first period, when they seemed to be on the verge of running the Canadiens out of the building, they were not able to maintain that level of play in the second and third periods and allowed Montreal to turn the tables on them a little bit.
Things really started to get a little tense for them with four minutes to play in the third period when Logan Couture was assessed a double-minor for high-sticking Alexander Radulov, resulting a nasty cut to Radulov’s face that left a trail of blood on the ice as he skated to the bench.
Montreal was able to cut the deficit to one when Artturi Lehkonen scored his third goal of the season but were never able to get the tying goal.
After a 13-2-1 start to the season the Canadiens have hit their first slump of the season and are now 3-5-1 in their past nine games.
The Sharks on the other hand are starting to hit their stride a little bit and have won six of their past seven games to open up a three-point lead over the Anaheim Ducks and Edmonton Oilers in the Pacific Division.
The Calgary Flames’ recent turnaround continued on Friday night with a 3-2 shootout win over the Minnesota Wild.
The win improved the Flames to 7-3-1 in their past 11 games, and featured another strong performance from goaltender Chad Johnson as he continues to make his case to be the team’s No. 1 goaltender.
He stopped 23 of the 25 shots he faced through regulation and overtime, and then two of the three shots he faced in the shootout. Johnson has been on a roll for the Flames since the middle of November, starting nine of the team’s 11 games since Nov. 15.
During that stretch he has a .948 save percentage and a 7-2-0 record. His save percentage for the season remains over .930.
The crazy thing about that number is that it isn’t that far off from what his career numbers look like. Granted, most of that has come in a backup role, but in 40 starts with the Buffalo Sabres a year ago he finished the year with a .920 save percentage. He was at .925 a few years ago in Boston. Really, the only time in his career his performance dipped significantly below that was during a 19-game sample size in 2014-15 with the New York Islanders.
The win moved the Flames into a wild card position in the Western Conference for the time being. It is worth pointing out their 27 games played are more than any other team in the league at the moment, and are five more than the Nashville team they temporarily jumped over in the standings on Friday.
Still, considering where the Flames were just a couple of weeks ago when they were 5-10-1 through the first 16 games.
Sean Monahan scored the winning goal in the shootout for the Flames.
Boudreau said after the game that he had intended to use Koivu if the shootout had been extended to a fourth round, and that his decision to use Charlie Coyle ahead of him came down to something he saw in the way Johnson was defending the first two shooters.
When it came to Parise, who only played 24 seconds in the overtime period, Boudreau said he wanted to talk to the team’s trainers to see if he was fully healthy, adding that he thought Parise looked sluggish and methodical for most of the game.
Alex Galchenyuk has been one of the Montreal Canadiens best players this season and entered play on Friday night with nine goals in his first 23 games.
In the first period against the San Jose Sharks he had himself in a great position to score goal No. 10 when he had a wide open look right in front of the net.
Sharks goalie Martin Jones, however, had other ideas and absolutely robbed the Canadiens’ star forward.
Have a look.
Jones took over as the Sharks’ starting goaltender a year ago after he was acquired in an offseason trade with the Boston Bruins. He was a key piece in their run to the Stanley Cup Final.
He has been on quite a run for the Sharks over the past couple of weeks and entered play on Friday having allowed just six goals in his past five starts.