All of a sudden, the Blue Jackets are good

January, 22, 2014
Jan 22
10:49
AM ET
Columbus Blue Jackets head coach Todd Richards is trying to think of the old saying, something about becoming intoxicated by your own success.

It's not something that has come up all that often for the Blue Jackets over the years, becoming so enthused with their own play, their success, that they forget the foundation on which whatever fleeting success that came their way was built. Success has been a rare commodity for a franchise with just one playoff appearance in its history and zero playoff wins.

But here the Blue Jackets are, winners of a franchise-record seven straight after their 5-3 win at home Tuesday night over the Los Angeles Kings.

The win solidified their spot in the second of two wild-card berths available in the Eastern Conference but, more importantly, moved them to within two points of Philadelphia, which sits third in the Metropolitan Division and just three points back of the New York Rangers, on whom they hold three games in hand.

Richards said the team did talk about the standings before Tuesday's win but it wasn't what you might have expected, a self-congratulatory speech about being back in the hunt for a playoff berth that just a few weeks ago seemed a mirage. Instead, Richards reminded his team that playing this well changes the dynamics, changes how they are viewed from the outside and how teams will prepare to face them.

"It puts a target on our backs, that's what it's done," Richards told ESPN.com.

The teams they are chasing no longer exhale and assume two points will be the result of a date with Columbus. The teams chasing the Blue Jackets, the Red Wings, Hurricanes, Devils, Islanders and Senators, all bring a little bit more in an effort to reel them in.

"Teams underneath us are more motivated to play us now," Richards said.

The upshot of the coach's message to his troops: "If we get comfortable and we get satisfied," Richards said, "I can tell you in a week we're going to be in a world of hurt."

It's not like the Blue Jackets have never had stretches where they played well.

Last season, of course, they were one of the hottest teams in the second half of the lockout-shortened, 48-game slate. They ended up tied for eighth in the Western Conference but lost the final playoff spot to Minnesota on a tiebreaker.

The move to the Eastern Conference for this season was designed to make travel less onerous and help the Blue Jackets foster a better relationship with their fans and sponsors, road games now often playing to prime-time television audiences as opposed to last season when they were late in the evening when the team was on one of its regular jaunts to the West Coast.

But as many predicted, there was a bit of a fallback after last season's dramatic run to the edge of the playoffs.

Sergei Bobrovsky, the defending Vezina Trophy winner and the catalyst to last season's resurgence, saw his numbers even out a bit early in the season and then he got hurt. The offense, traditionally a problem, struggled and the team found itself mired in a familiar place in the standings: out of sight of the playoffs.

But Richards' squad stayed on task and it has won 15 of 22 games since the start of December. Young players such as Ryan Johansen, who leads the team with 19 goals, and Cam Atkinson, who has 15, have blossomed.

The return of winger Nathan Horton, who hadn't played with the team after offseason shoulder surgery, has also been a catalyst to the Blue Jackets' success. The high-profile free-agent signing has three goals and three assists in the nine games in which he's appeared. Two of those goals have been game winners.

In all, six Blue Jackets have 10 or more goals and the team ranks eighth at 2.84 goals per game, a number that reflects the team's more multidimensional approach. The power play is a respectable 13th.

No longer do the Blue Jackets need to scratch and claw and count on otherworldly goaltending every night in order to collect points.

If the Blue Jackets seem to have reinvented themselves, Richards would take issue with any notion the team has changed its identity.

"Everything last year, everything this year, has been through hard work, discipline and depth," Richards said. "It's been a collective effort."

Will it last? The Blue Jackets play five of their next six at home and all six of those games are against Eastern Conference foes. For a team in the middle of an unprecedented winning streak, the Blue Jackets are frankly quite suddenly in control of their own fate, regardless of how things unfold.

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