COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The Columbus Blue Jackets got plenty of lucky breaks in their surprisingly successful 2016-17 season.
Serious injuries were avoided, their power play was one of the NHL’s best, and goalie Sergei Bobrovsky won the Vezina Trophy. Pucks bounced the Blue Jackets’ way more often than not as they piled up a 16-game winning streak and earned a playoff spot, just one season removed from a last-place finish in the Metropolitan Division.
Good fortune has been a little bit harder to come by this season for the Blue Jackets, who are in danger of fading out of the playoff picture in the Metro. Injuries have taken some of the team’s best players out of action for big chunks of time. The power-play is worst in the league. The penalty-kill is only slightly better.
“We’re spoiled because of the year we had last year when everything went our way, we got breaks, we were healthy, a lot of things went our way,” said Columbus coach John Tortorella after the Blue Jackets outshot Washington 39-25 on Tuesday night but lost the game when Nicklas Backstrom scored with 43 seconds left.
“As I’ve always said, we forced them to go our way for the most part, but you do get some luck in a year,” he said. “We had a ton of it. We’ve got (crap) for luck right now.”
Forwards Cam Atkinson, Brandon Dubinsky, Nick Foligno and Boone Jenner — players expected to be top goal scorers — all were slow to get started. Atkinson just got back on the ice after missing a month with a broken foot. A fractured orbital bone sustained in a fight Dec. 12 sidelined Dubinsky for six weeks. He just got back in the lineup, scoring the tying goal in the third period Tuesday night.
Jenner missed the first seven games of the season with an injury. Center Alexander Wennberg and defenseman Zach Werenski also have been out with hurts.
Those players were expected to shoulder the load. Instead it’s been wingers Artemi Panarin, Josh Anderson and Oliver Bjorkstrand, as well as all-star defenseman Seth Jones. Their production has kept the Blue Jackets in playoff contention, but every other team in the Metro Division is within reach, too.
Bobrovsky is eighth in the league in wins, and his .920 save percentage is down from the cumulative .931 of last season. Columbus has lost four straight and nine of the last 11, but Tortorella sees progress.
“It’s been that way most of the year here, where things just haven’t totally gone our way in games,” he said. “Somehow we’ve got to have the wherewithal to keep finding ourselves, keep staying with it, and turn these games into wins and try to get on a run.”
On Tuesday, the Blue Jackets moved the puck effectively and went hard at Washington goalie Braden Holtby in a 3-2 loss that Tortorella described as “a kick in the stomach.”
“We were around the net a lot,” Jones said. “A bounce here and a bounce there is a couple more goals for us.”
Columbus will get another crack at the Capitals in Washington on Friday night. Six of the next seven games are against Metro Division rivals, so that stretch is likely to determine whether the Blue Jackets will return to the playoffs. There haven’t been back-to-back playoff years in the 18-year history of the franchise.
“It’s a grind,” Dubinsky said. “It’s a long season. Nobody said it was going to be easy for us. It’s hard right now, not getting the results. I think we’re putting in some good minutes. We just have to come to work tomorrow with our heads up and be ready and willing to get better.”