For a brief moment, while his players enjoy a much-deserved day off, Todd Richards allows himself to revel in their recent success.
The Columbus Blue Jackets, having played 10 games in 19 days, need a mental break and time to get refreshed, said their head coach, before putting their franchise-record 11-game points streak (7-0-4) on the line Friday night against the visiting Calgary Flames.
Richards said there’s a buzz in Columbus for a team with one playoff appearance in 11 seasons. The year was 2009 and Detroit made quick work of the Blue Jackets, sweeping a best-of-seven Western Conference quarter-final.
Richards also cautioned fans that 10th-place Columbus is almost as close to the 15th and last spot in the conference as it is to the eighth and final playoff position. San Jose, Phoenix and the 12-12-6 Blue Jackets each have 30 points but the Sharks have two games in hand while the Coyotes have 13 wins to Columbus’ 12. Last-place Colorado has 26 points.
“It’s a big credit to the [players] and what we’ve been able to accomplish here,” Richards said in a phone interview, “but we still gotta keep pushing."
A month ago, the Blue Jackets were enduring an all-too-common slow start to the season with a 4-10-2 record, only this time there were five notable additions to the lineup trying to find their way post-NHL lockout following a six-day training camp and no pre-season games.
“When you bring a bunch of new people in like [forwards Brandon] Dubinsky [and Artem] Anisimov as well as Nick Foligno, [goalie Sergei] Bobrovsky, and [defenceman Adrian] Aucoin, that can upset the apple cart somewhat.
“How much time did it take for our team to figure each other out, personality-wise, the hierarchy of the [dressing] room? Where was everybody going to fit? We started to sort through this. You put on top of that a hot goaltender and some wins and now you have confidence.”
Richards talked to CBCSports.ca about how the Blue Jackets turned the corner, how they’re winning the majority of one-goal games that eluded them in February and why Bobrovsky is among the elite of NHL goaltenders this season.
1. To what do you attribute the Blue Jackets’ 5-12-3 start through February, and what kind of identity has the team created?
Richards: Earlier in the year, we had turnovers that led to so many [scoring] chances against. When you’re turning pucks over in the neutral zone against [top teams like] Chicago, Anaheim and the L.A. Kings, there’s a price to pay and it was costing us. We were trying to force the puck to areas of the ice we shouldn’t and the players have finally recognized this.
Now, we have some momentum and hopefully some confidence. We found our game and our identity. We’re a hard-working, blue-collar group and smart in how we manage the game and puck.
2. Sergei Bobrovsky is fifth among starting NHL goalies with a 2.05 goals-against average and second in save percentage at .931. That compares to 3.02 and .899 totals last season in Philadelphia. Where have you seen the greatest improvement in his game?
Credit for Bobby’s play also has to go to our goalie coach, Ian Clark. They’ve been working on Bobby getting up taller in the net with traffic [in front]. He was a goalie that would get hunched over and low. And I think Bobby sees it now.
A lot of times when guys get to this level, they’re into their routines and beliefs and what’s got them [to the NHL] and a lot of times they don’t want to change. There was some resistance from Bobby. But I think once Ian went over some video with him and showed him things and he went [on the ice] and worked on it, I think Bobby started to see it.
Confidence isn’t just show up to the door, knock on it and say ‘I’m here.’ You get confident because you invest in yourself and do things to improve yourself. And then you start to get the results and that gives you more confidence.
3. Six of the team’s nine losses in February were by one goal, but you have won six of eight by one goal in March. What has allowed you to be more successful in such situations?
Our goaltending’s been very, very good. Bobby [Sergei Bobrovsky] has been out of this world and that gives your team confidence. When your goaltender is on top of his game it allows the players to play a little bit more loose in front of him.
It’s the trust factor amongst the players. When you don’t trust your teammates on the ice, you sometimes get out of position. If I don’t trust that you’re going to make the save I might overplay the puck and it [creates a scoring chance] for the opposition.
4. The penalty-kill unit has been scored against once in 23 chances in March and ranks fourth in the 30-team NHL this season with an 86.6 per cent success rate. Last season, the Blue Jackets’ penalty kill was 30th in the league. Is it the addition of forwards Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov alone that has made the difference?
Yes, they have played a big part in the unit’s success. Our defence has been very good also, guys like Jack [Johnson], Tutes [Fedor Tyutin] and [Nikita] Nikitin, [Adrian] Aucoin. And your goalie has to be good.
I don’t want to say we don’t have any skill but more of our makeup and our identity is just in how we work. We can sacrifice and we’re willing to do certain things and that plays into our penalty kill.
We started the season with a framework of what we want to do on a penalty kill, what we’re willing to give up or where we want to direct or steer the puck. Nothing’s changed framework-wise. I think our goalies have been better this year on our penalty kill but players have really bought into the structure, whether it’s up ice or in [the defensive] zone. I might have six or seven guys that I can use on any type of penalty kill and that’s good because we’re fresh on the ice.
5. Nine of your past 11 games entering Thursday were been decided in overtime or a shootout. How does playing tightly contested games now prepare your players should they be involved in a playoff race with several teams?
It could wear [us] down because [we’ve] spent a lot of time playing those games. But I look at it more positively as far as just playing in tight games. Down the stretch, when the game is on the line, [it’ll be the] understanding [for our players that] we’ve been there.
We’ve played in a lot of tight games against some really good hockey teams, too. We’ve played [Western Conference-leading] Chicago four times this year and [lost] every game by one goal. They made one more play [than us]. We either have to eliminate the extra play [next time] or we have to make one more play ourselves.