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Being ‘better mentally equipped’ has helped the Jackets succeed this season

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) When the Columbus Blue Jackets beat the Montreal Canadiens two days before Christmas for the team’s 12th consecutive win, the sell-out crowd at Nationwide Arena stayed put and cheered long past the final horn.

Understandable, given that the fans here haven’t had much to celebrate in the team’s 16-year history.

Just a season removed from a last-place finish in the Metropolitan Division – coach John Tortorella called 2015-16 “embarrassing” – the Blue Jackets have hockey’s best record fueled by a roster light on stars but deep in key contributors.

Goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky led the way against the Canadiens on Friday, stopping 36 shots in a 2-1 victory, including two acrobatic blocks using the toe of his skate. The previous night, Scott Hartnell was the star, getting a hat trick in a 7-1 win over the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins to take over first place in the league’s toughest division.

The Blue Jackets are off to their best start ever at 23-5-4. They have the league’s largest goal differential (plus-45) and haven’t lost in regulation since the day before Thanksgiving.

Columbus is hunting its first ever division title and third postseason appearance after limping to a 34-40-8 record last season, a shocking feat since the core of the roster largely returned.

So what’s the difference?

“Mental,” said Tortorella, who replaced Todd Richards after the Blue Jackets started 0-7 last season. “We’re a much better mentally equipped team, in handling things, in understanding what it is to be a pro. More businesslike.”

“The energy,” said left wing Brandon Saad, who led the team last year with 31 goals and 53 points. “When you’re winning hockey games, everyone is coming in excited and with confidence and we’re playing well as a team. Last year, the way things were going, it was tough coming to the rink.”

Another reason for the turnaround is the resurgence of captain Nick Foligno, one of four players with 10 or more goals. He’s back to his old self following a disappointing 2015-16 in which he had just 37 points – he led the team with 73 the season before.

“I think the biggest thing is that we have an identity,” Foligno said. “It’s something we didn’t have. Every team needs to have that to be successful. We’re a depth team, good defense, we play fast, obviously great goaltending, and we really believe in ourselves right now, which was maybe lacking last year.”

Columbus has also gotten a jolt – and some big minutes – from some emerging young stars. Defenseman Zach Werenski is pulling over 21 minutes per game and showing surprising maturity for a 19-year-old rookie. Werenski is paired with 22-year-old Seth Jones, another fast, aggressive defender and top-notch passer.

Sam Gagner has also been a pleasant surprise. The 27-year-old journeyman signed a one-year, $650,000 free agent contract over the summer and has 14 goals already after scoring eight in 53 games with the Flyers last season.

“Being on a winning team helps,” Gagner said. “Coming to the game and knowing your role and what’s expected of you, and knowing there’s a good possibility of winning the game, that’s exciting. I’ve enjoyed being on a team like this.”

Columbus hasn’t made the postseason since 2013-14, when it lost in the first round. This improbable team doesn’t just look like a rare playoff-worthy squad, though. It seems primed to compete for the Stanley Cup.

Just don’t expect to hear that coming from the locker room.

“We have to stay so focused on what we have to do each day because we simply are not good enough to think we’re OK here now,” Tortorella said. “We have to concentrate every day on what we’re trying to do, and that’s where I think we made the biggest improvement.”

 

Yandle is happy Tallon is back running the Panthers

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It’s that time.

We’re approaching August, which means that the deluge of hockey optimism is really headed our way.

Players on teams that missed the playoffs – sometimes badly – will fill notebooks with quotes about how excited they are about next season. Guys whose past seasons were riddled by injuries will say that they’re in the best shape of their lives.

Now, look, there’s nothing wrong with that. And, hey, some of those players will almost certainly end up being right. Sometimes they provide some substance beyond the blindly positive comments.

That’s not really the interesting part of Keith Yandle‘s gushing comments about the Florida Panthers, via NHL.com’s Dan Rosen. Nope, it’s interesting because he’s praising GM Dale Tallon regaining his post.

“Having Dale back in charge, I think that was the main thing that got everyone going,” Yandle said. “You sense the power over the locker room that Dale can have. It’s such a positive thing when you have a guy like Dale Tallon. Everyone respects him and everything he does for the team. Going into the season knowing he has our back, he has the team, and obviously that he hired great coaches too, it’s a great thing.”

Yandle’s enthusiasm regarding Tallon is interesting because, frankly, Yandle seems like he was part of the batch of analytics-driven signings.

Without knowing for sure, Yandle seems like the sort of defenseman “old-school-types” might not like. There were rumblings that he refused to waive his NMC for the expansion draft, only fueling thoughts that the very executive he’s praising might have wanted him out.

Tallon’s already done work to walk back certain moves from that not-so-old-regime, as he engineered the moves to send not just Jonathan Marchessault but also Reilly Smith to the Vegas Golden Knights. There were also rumors that the Panthers were shopping Jason Demers, possibly more than once.

Now, it’s possible that Yandle could be excited about the direction of the team, even if said team might prefer that he was playing elsewhere. Still, it’s an amusing note amid a fairly typical round of optimistic quotes.

(Yandle does make some solid points about why 2017-18 could be better, by the way.)

Willie Desjardins to coach Team Canada at Olympics

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The past two Winter Olympics, Team Canada has been coached to gold by Mike Babcock, currently the NHL’s highest-paid bench boss.

But the 2018 Olympics in South Korea will be a very different animal. The NHL is not sending its players this time. When the Games are on, Babcock will be busy with his Toronto Maple Leafs.

So, today, Hockey Canada announced that Willie Desjardins, recently fired by the Vancouver Canucks, will be the head coach of the two-time defending gold medalists. Desjardins will be assisted by former Team Canada head coach Dave King, as well as Scott Walker and Craig Woodcroft.

Sean Burke, who rose to prominence as a goalie in the 1988 and 1992 Olympics — which didn’t feature NHLers, either — will be Canada’s general manager. Burke will be aided by Martin Brodeur.

“This is an exciting time for Hockey Canada and for our National Men’s Team program, and it will be an exciting season for Canadian hockey fans,” said Tom Renney, Hockey Canada’s CEO. “The goal is always to field the best possible team in all upcoming competitions, including this February when we hit the world’s biggest sporting stage in Pyeonchang. The faces on our Team Canada rosters may be different than in previous years, but the expectations will be the same; with the addition of Sean, Martin, Willie, Dave, Scott, and Craig, we have assembled some of the best hockey minds out there to help us meet those expectations of on-ice success.”

Today’s announcement is yet more evidence, if you still required it, that the NHL isn’t bluffing about not sending its players to South Korea.

In an email to The Hockey News, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly refuted a report out of Russia that suggested the league had a backup schedule with an Olympic break in it.

“There is not an alternative schedule,” Daly wrote. “Having NHL Players participate in the 2018 Winter Olympic Games is not an available option. All of the international federations are planning appropriately for constructing teams that will not include NHL players. I anticipate there will be federation announcements in the coming days that should eliminate any and all continuing doubt or skepticism about the issue.”

The NHL released the 2017-18 schedule a month ago.

Related: Tampa awarded the 2018 All-Star Game, further dampening Olympic hopes

Preds expect answer from Fisher next week

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We should find out next week if Mike Fisher is going to retire or keep playing for the Predators.

Fisher, Nashville’s 37-year-old captain, is an unrestricted free agent. He confirmed last month that he was considering retirement. But first, he needed some time to think.

Yesterday, Preds GM David Poile said he expected an answer soon.

“I’m hoping to talk to him later this week to see where he’s at,” Poile said, per The Tennessean. “I’d say by next week, we should have an update.”

Fisher had 18 goals and 24 assists in 72 games last season, but then had just four assists in 20 playoff games as the Preds reached their first Stanley Cup Final in franchise history.

If Fisher re-signs, he’ll likely be in the bottom six next season, with Ryan Johansen and newly signed Nick Bonino expected to center the top two lines. Fisher could even be the fourth-line center or a winger, allowing the likes of Calle Jarnkrok, Colton Sissons, and Frederick Gaudreau to take on bigger roles.

But for Fisher, hockey isn’t everything, and after more than 1,000 games in the NHL, he may simply opt to hang up the skates.

“Everyone wants to win in this game, no one probably more than me,” Fisher said. “But there’s other things. At the end of the day, this is a game. It’s an important part of my life, but it’s not everything.”

Related: Predators take Stanley Cup loss with grace and optimism

Habs sign Mark Streit — is he Markov’s replacement?

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The Montreal Canadiens have signed 39-year-old defenseman Mark Streit to a one-year contract worth a reported $700,000.

This will actually be Streit’s second stint with the Habs. He started his NHL career in Montreal, all the way back in 2005.

Streit split last season between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. In the playoffs, he only appeared in three games for the Penguins, all of them in the Eastern Conference Final against Ottawa when Justin Schultz was hurt.

What the Streit signing means for Andrei Markov remains to be seen. Streit, like Markov, can run a power play, so it’s tempting to conclude that Streit is Markov’s replacement.

That being said, almost all of Streit’s contract could be buried in the AHL if necessary, so that conclusion may be premature. This could even be a move by GM Marc Bergevin to gain leverage and convince Markov to sign.

Markov, 38, remains an unrestricted free agent. The Canadiens want him back, but only at a certain price.