The hottest team in the NHL won’t get to play hockey when it matters most.
With nine wins in their past 10 games, the real Columbus Blue Jackets are finally beginning to show their true talent after a season from hell on the injury front.
But it comes too late to save the season: They will officially be eliminated from playoff contention once the Boston Bruins get one more point.
The current six-game win streak includes wins over the Vancouver Canucks, Calgary Flames, Anaheim Ducks, Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues -- but it also comes with the knowledge they won’t be joining some of those teams in the playoffs.
"Yes and no," 26-goal man Nick Foligno of the Jackets told ESPN.com Monday. "There’s been so much disappointment this year with all the injuries and not ever getting on that run, never having our full team ... But I’m really happy that we’re starting to play this way so at least it gives us some confidence and some understanding of what type of team we are moving forward. And maybe that means not having to push the panic button because OK, this is what we are."
That’s exactly the view shared by management.
"We’re not going to go out and get silly just because we missed the playoffs; we’re not going to start changing the texture of our hockey club," John Davidson, president of hockey operations for the Jackets, told ESPN.com Monday. "We feel pretty strongly about this group. Going forward, we’re going to try to improve it, for sure, but we’re not going to tear it down to improve it."
It’s interesting to note that Columbus is the club that is cited most often when other coaches, scouts and executives around the NHL are asked which non-playoff team this season has the best shot at going back to the dance next year.
A playoff team a year ago -- one that gave the Pittsburgh Penguins all they could handle -- Columbus wanted to take the next step this season, or at least prove that the playoff berth wasn’t a fluke.
But as one body went down after another early in the campaign, the Jackets never got a chance to ice their real team. The Jackets are at 482 man games lost to injury and counting. They’ve had 10 players miss at least 20 games due to injury and five that missed 30 or more games (including key guys such as Brandon Dubinsky, Boone Jenner, Ryan Murray and Artem Anisimov).
It was akin to killing a penalty for an entire game, the whole season.
"We had up to 11 players missing at one time," said Davidson. "It’s kind of like going to a gun fight with a knife."
As some of the bodies have returned over the past few weeks, the Jackets have come back to life.
"When we started getting healthy and guys finding their games, we can compete with anybody," said Davidson. "We’re back playing our game."
"We just have to find a way to stay healthy," said Foligno. "Hopefully it gives us a real good feeling in the summer, knowing that if we all take care of each other in the summer, come back fully healthy, that we can be a real dominant team in this league."
Just having former Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky healthy next season will be a start.
The Russian star missed long stretches to injury in November and February and the Jackets simply aren’t the same team without him. This is reflected by Bobrovsky's current 25-17-2 record on the season, while Curtis McElhinney and Anton Forsberg have combined to go 11-18-2.
"Curtis actually did a really good job for us the second time Bob was out. He was awesome," Foligno said of the veteran backup who sports a respectable .913 save percentage. "He kept us in every game, but we just didn’t play well in front of him. But for sure, you see how and why Bob is so counted on here. He can win you games single-handedly. When he’s on the top of his game, he’s one of the toughest goaltenders in the league to beat. Any time he’s out for an extended period of time, it changes the makeup of our room, it’s hard to replace a guy like him."
There have been some silver linings. The club for the first time in franchise history sports three 25-goal scorers in Foligno, Scott Hartnell and Ryan Johansen. And Cam Atkinson isn’t far behind at 20.
"I think it says a lot about our system and the way we can play, the type of offense we can bring," said Foligno, whose 65 points are a career high. "We need that to continue. We’ve always been known as a pretty hard team to play against, but it shows we can also have a pretty potent offense. We’re an in-your-face forechecking style but we can also put the puck in the back of the net, too."
Off the ice, many of the team’s core players are signed to contracts, so there shouldn’t be any summer distractions like the Johansen saga was before this season. Johansen is signed, and so are the likes of Bobrovsky, Atkinson, Foligno, Dubinsky, Jack Johnson, etc.
In the meantime, perhaps the ping-pong ball will be kind to Columbus in the April 18 draft lottery for what will be a very deep draft.
Having said that, there was certainly no tanking talk in Columbus this season, as the Jackets are playing their best hockey of the season now.
"I’m proud of our guys for playing the game the right way down the stretch here," Davidson said.
Regardless of the prospect they get come the June draft, the Jackets already feel like they have what is needed to contend.
"We have the pieces in place to become a consistent playoff team," said Foligno. "It’s staying healthy and playing the right way. Moving forward, we hope to not only get in the playoffs, but eventually build towards being a Stanley Cup champion."
Added Davidson: "I just wish it was Sept. 1 now. I’m excited about this team."