Tonight, the Columbus Blue Jackets do battle with the Detroit Red Wings for first place in the Western Conference.
Shocking. The Blue Jackets weren't supposed to be this good - not with a new coach installing a new system, a suspect blueline, a suspect goalie and only one scoring line. In a division featuring the defending Stanley Cup Champs, the Hated Red Wings, the new and improved Blues (now with HALAK!) and the perennial playoff-bound Predators, Columbus was picked to finish dead last by virtually everyone, including the entire Puck Daddy staff.
Through the first two weeks of the season, the Blue Jackets did little to prove the prognosticators wrong. After opening the season in front of sparse crowds in Stockholm, they came home and, in front of sparse crowds at Nationwide Arena, served up a 5-2 stinker against Chicago and a 6-2 loss to Calgary. The loss to the Flames prompted Yours Truly to coin the term, "...burning bowel movement of a game..."
The Blue Jackets hit rock-bottom that night against Calgary. From there, they easily could've gone the way of the Islanders and Devils, imploding and playing for the 2011 Draft Lottery Championship. Instead, the Jackets pulled together, compiling a post-Flames-loss record of 11-3-0, including a franchise-first sweep of California (wins at Los Angeles, Anaheim and San Jose on the same road trip).
Those eleven wins include four shutouts - three from offseason acquisition Mathieu Garon, one from Goalie of the Present and Future Steve Mason. Like the team as a whole, Mason had a shaky start to the season, but continues to improve with every game. Apparently, nothing lights a fire under a goalie like a red-hot backup...and the "suspect" blueline has been surprisingly solid in their own end.
Curiously, Columbus is scoring with alacrity despite the absence of playmaker Kristian Huselius, out for 13 games and counting with a high ankle sprain, and despite a lack (until recently) of production from the second line of Filatov-Vermette-Umberger. The enigmatic Filatov is still searching for his first goal of the season, but his overall game is improving, so it's only a matter of time.
The chemistry of the Nash-Brassard-Voracek line has been key. Since Nash was swapped for Filatov on this line, both Brassard and Voracek have been energized. Brassard, in particular, is playing with high confidence and a smile on his face, both of which were missing last season.
Contributions from the third and fourth lines cannot be overlooked, as the likes of Chris Clark, Kyle Wilson, Derek Dorsett and Jared Boll have picked up the scoring slack for the second line.
In light of the Jackets' 12-6-2 start to the 2009-2010 season, which was followed by 62 games of painful ugliness, many have tempered their enthusiasm by adopting a perfectly understandable wait-and-see approach to this season. Here at OGA, however, we're officially calling the Columbus Blue Jackets IN the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs, as of 25 November. This is not last season's team. Rather than battling against their coach, the 2010-2011 Jackets are battling for their coach, as well as for each other. They're gaining strength and confidence daily. The fact that Columbus plays Detroit tonight for first place in the Western Conference, while surprising, is no fluke. When do playoff tickets go on sale, Columbus?
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