The Columbus Blue Jackets captured the attention of the hockey world last season by winning nine of their last 10 games down the stretch and missing the Western Conference playoff cut by just a single point in the truncated 48-game season.
This year's edition of the Jackets is putting the same kind of push together after the same number of games played, moving into the Eastern Conference's final wild card spot through 48 games thanks to their current six-game winning streak, which happens to tie the franchise record. Columbus has lost just once since New Year's Day, and they have reached the 24-win mark to equal their total from 2013's lockout-shortened campaign.
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Columbus' streak has been fueled by adding two injured players in Nathan Horton and Sergei Bobrovsky back to the lineup.
Horton, who signed a seven-year, $37.1 million deal with the club in July, played his first game for the franchise -- and his first since suiting up for Boston in the Stanley Cup Final -- on Jan. 2. Columbus won that game against Phoenix, and six of seven games since, with the winger notching five points over the course of those eight contests. In addition to playing well, Horton adds grit and playoff experience to the lineup, and leadership in the dressing.
Bobrovsky has been a boost to the Jackets since returning from a groin injury that sidelined him one month, going 5-0-0 with a 1.74 goals-against average and an impressive .945 save percentage. He has made some key stops, including one big one on Alex Ovechkin on Friday night, that have sparked comparisons to last year's Vezina Trophy performance. Bobrovsky was a major reason the Blue Jackets were on the cusp of the postseason, and after a slow start, he has been terrific in his return from injury.
One of the long-term benefits of last year's run may be that it helped teach a younger roster about pressure, and the confidence you gain when you play well. That confidence showed in the latest streak.
"Every game's a big game for us right now, every game's a playoff game," Jackets center Brandon Dubinsky said Saturday following the team's 4-3 shootout win over the Sabres. "That's the way we're approaching it. ... We're doing a hell of a job finding ways to get points, finding ways to control the play large portions of the game."
"I think we had trouble having complete 60 minute games [earlier in the season]," Ryan Johansen said. "We're still not perfect, or anything like that, we've been more solid in games. You have to give [Bobrovsky] a lot of credit. Since he has been back, he has been solid back in the net there, and guys have a lot of confidence in him. We're playing well in front of him."
For a team that got off to a 5-10-0 start, the Jackets have since gone 19-10-4 since to put themselves right back in contention with the record-tying run.
"It's always good to be good on a team that's making history in the organization," Nick Foligno said with a smile. "It's awesome. You see where we are in the standings and we're fighting for a playoff spot along with a bunch of other great teams, it's right going to come right down to the wire."
Now, with a chance to show the depth of the roster over a full 82-game slate, Dubinsky feels the Blue Jackets are playing with more confidence as of late.
"We're getting some swagger in here and some confidence, and we continue to work hard day-in and day-out, and we're getting rewarded right now," he said.
"A confident team, a confident person, that stuff carries over onto the ice," he added. "We're confident in here we're going play better games. Every 60 minutes we're not going to be perfect, but the more we strive to it, the better we're going to be. Six in the row in the NHL isn't easy to do."
Tuesday night at home against the Kings, the Jackets will look to set a new franchise mark, and Johansen is looking forward to the opportunity.
"It's a great opportunity for our hockey club, he said. "We're playing a very good team in L.A., and it'd be a great one to win at home against a team like that."
More importantly for Columbus, though, is that after 48 games the team has again worked its way back into a playoff spot. This time around, the Jackets get another 34 games to go before they can return to the playoffs for the first time since 2009.
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