The Columbus Blue Jackets defied the odds this season and secured one of the final Wildcard spots in the East in the final week of the season. The team lacks high-end talent, but they more than make up for it with strong physical play, smart defensive tendencies, and solid goaltending. All of those factors are what teams typically need for a long playoff run, and Columbus is hoping the same is true this year.
Columbus Blue Jackets
(7th in the Eastern Conference, 4th in the Metropolitan Division)
Preseason Expectations: Columbus just barely missed the playoffs last season, thanks in large part to the play of their Vezina-winning goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. The Blue Jackets had the same number of points as the 8th seed Minnesota Wild, but less wins, putting them outside the playoff bubble at 9th. This year, Columbus moved to the Eastern Conference with new divisional opponents but the same style of play. The transfer was not expected to cause a big disruption in Columbus’s play, as they faced tough competition while in the Central division as well.
How they got here: Columbus reached the playoffs thanks to a ridiculous January record. After finishing 2013 at 13th in the Eastern Conference, the Blue Jackets had a 10-4-0 record in January, vaulting them to only one point behind 7th place. Columbus stumbled before the Olympic break, but recovered in early March and used that momentum to earn a playoff spot in the final week of the season. Big offseason acquisition, Nathan Horton, returning to the lineup after missing the first few months of the season also helped this push to the playoffs.
Key players: G Sergei Bobrovsky, C Ryan Johansen, C Brandon Dubinsky, D James Wisniewski
Major Moves: Columbus has had a complete change in culture since trading away franchise forward Rick Nash to the New York Rangers in exchange for Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov. Rather than focusing on one superstar forward, the Blue Jackets have built around depth in the forward lines and development of young players. Ryan Johansen is the perfect example of that, posting his first 30-goal year in only his third NHL season. Nathan Horton was signed in the offseason to bring more depth to the team, but injuries have kept him out for most of season.
Who they will face in the first round: The Pittsburgh Penguins will be the first opponent for Columbus in their quest for the Cup. The Penguins are everything the Blue Jackets are not: Speedy, skilled and experienced. Pittsburgh has made multiple deep runs with the core group of players they have now, while this is only the second playoff appearance in Columbus’s franchise history. To make matters worse for Columbus, the Penguins owned the season series, winning every game in regulation.
How they will fare: Every instinct is saying the Penguins will cream the Blue Jackets, but it really depends on which game emerges as the dominant presence throughout the series. If Columbus can get Pittsburgh to play their game, a physical defensive series, they stand a much better chance of moving on to the next round. Still, one does not bet against Sidney Crosby.
Prediction: Penguins in 6.
Conn Smythe Winner: If the Blue Jackets shock the NHL and win it all, Sergei Bobrovsky will be the major reason why. The team does not have the point producers that will put up the numbers that will overshadow what will certainly be a stellar performance by Bobrovsky. Columbus’s chances will come and go as Bobrovsky does.
Commentary by Jonathan Gardner