Let’s show a little love for the Blue Jackets.
After a dismal start to the season, the BJs have turned it on by winning six of their last nine, moving within two points of Carolina for the third and final playoff spot in the Metropolitan Division.
But the real story is how Columbus has done it.
The Jackets are winning games without four of their highest-paid and most important players: Marian Gaborik (out since Nov. 14 with a knee injury), Sergei Bobrovsky (out since Dec. 4 with a groin ailment), James Wisniewski (out since Dec. 6 with an upper-body injury) and Nathan Horton (missed the entire season recovering from shoulder surgery).
That quartet represents the club’s top sniper, a Vezina-winning goalie, a top-four defenseman and a prized free agent power forward — big losses for a team light on talent.
Yet the Jackets have made it work.
They’ve recorded quality wins over this 6-3-0 stretch — a 6-0 drubbing of the Leafs in Toronto, back-to-back shutout wins over Tampa Bay and Minnesota — and have played well in their losses, dropping a tough 3-1 decision in Boston and a 2-1 defeat in Pittsburgh.
The most startling thing, though, is how Columbus has coped with its goaltending situation.
When Bobrovsky went down, the Jackets turned the No. 1 gig over to career journeyman Curtis McElhinney, a former Calgary draftee that spent time in Anaheim, Ottawa and Phoenix before joining Columbus last season (spending all of last year in AHL Springfield.) He won three of his first four starts in relief of Bobrovsky, including a 20-save shutout of the Wild.
But on Thursday, McElhinney was injured during the first period of a 4-2 win in New York… forcing Columbus to put in third-stringer Mike McKenna, who was playing his first NHL contest in three years.
Undeterred, McKenna stopped 17 of 18 shots the Rangers threw his way. That raised the spirits of head coach Todd Richards, who praised his players for a “great win.”
“It’s starting to get to that point where I think the confidence is growing in the group,” Richards told the Columbus Dispatch. “And the confidence the coaching staff has in the group is starting to grow.
“We’re starting to see more good things throughout a 60-minute game.”