COLUMBUS (AP) — The Columbus Blue Jackets, picked by many to sweep the basement of the Metropolitan Division this season, embarked on an unexpected and thrilling ride to the playoffs.
Their season ended in a first-round, five-game loss to the defending champion Penguins, denying Columbus its first series victory. But there is a sense of optimism surrounding the franchise. Here some things to know as the Blue Jackets try to build on the success and move forward:
FUTURE IS BRIGHT
The rise of the Blue Jackets this year was nearly as surprising as the complete collapse last year when team President John Davidson and general manager Jarmo Kealainen thought they had assembled the right parts for a playoff run. Some bad luck, including injuries to goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, stunted the timeline.
This year, Columbus set franchise records with 50 wins and 108 points. Along the way there was a 16-game winning streak, second-longest in NHL history.
The team’s key parts should return, with the core of Brandon Dubinsky, Brandon Saad and Nick Foligno locked up through 2020, and most others signed at least through next season. Nineteen-year-old defenseman Zach Werenski is a finalist for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year.
“I like a lot of things about our club,” coach John Tortorella said. “We have to lick our wounds and learn from some of things that went on in this series. I can’t wait to get going again with them, quite honestly. I’m proud of them.”
PUCKS IN THE NET
A dozen Blue Jackets players had double-figure goal totals this season. The team’s 247 goals were 34 more than the previous season and 20 better than the league’s average this year. That’s an average of more than five a game. Fourteen players had 20 more points.
Six-year pro Cam Atkinson had a career year, leading the team with 35 goals and 27 assists. Alexander Wennberg had a career-best 59 points and Foligno bounced back with 26 goals and 25 assists after a disappointing season in 2015-16.
SOMETHING ABOUT BOB
Although he suddenly turned leaky in the playoff series, Bobrovsky was the Blue Jackets’ undisputed MVP.
The 28-year-old Russian worked hard last offseason to come back from groin injuries that dogged him last year and limited him to a career-worst 15-19-1. He responded with the best season of his career, compiling a 41-17-5 record, a .931 save percentage and 2.06 goals-against average. He is a favorite to win his second Vezina Trophy.
“Listen, we don’t have a chance of even being here if it wasn’t for that guy,” Tortorella said. “He has had a tremendous year. … He’s the backbone of our team here.”
HIGHS AND LOWS
Columbus attracted attention with the 16-game winning streak, but they finished with a whimper.
The Blue Jackets lost eight of their last 11 games in the regular season and frittered away home-ice advantage to Pittsburgh. Then they managed to win just one game in the playoffs against the star-laden Penguins. Backup goaltender Marc-Anthony Fleury, an emergency replacement for injured Matt Murray, managed to frustrate the Blue Jackets’ best snipers.
LET TORTS BE TORTS
Tortorella’s influence on the young Blue Jackets can’t be overstated.
The irascible veteran was brought in to reboot the culture after the team lost its first seven games last season. The team bought into his no-nonsense, “safe is death” style, even though they grumbled about his notoriously tough training camp. The 58-year-old Boston native dialed down the ranting some but didn’t hesitate to call out players or scratch them when he thought their effort wasn’t up to his standards.
Torts may be around awhile. There is no question Columbus is more interesting with him here.