April 13, 2015

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) Even though they were all but mathematically eliminated from the playoffs weeks before the season ended, the Columbus Blue Jackets didn't tank at the finish.

As a matter of fact, they provided a reason for hope in a season that ended too soon.

''We have a lot to look forward to throughout the summer and next year,'' said forward Cam Atkinson.

They closed with a team-record 13-game points streak (12-0-1), including a franchise-best nine-game winning streak. At 42-35-5 (89 points) they won more games than in all but one of the club's previous 14 seasons (2013-14).

A heavy load of injuries - an NHL-high 508 man-games lost due to concussions, balky knees and backs, illnesses, pulled groins and muscle tears - wrecked any hopes this past season. But the late rush provided some hope.

''It wasn't just injuries, it was the key players who were injured,'' said general manager Jarmo Kekalainen. ''I remember when we had four of our top defensemen, three of our top four centers and our No. 1 goalie all hurt. That was right around the time when we lost nine in a row. This is too good of a league to win if you have too many injuries.''

Still, the club regrouped to finish with a bang.

''The biggest thing I'm saying to the guys is that we're finally seeing our team - the team we believed we had when we put this thing together,'' said Nick Foligno, who had a career year with a personal-best 31 goals and 71 points. ''The core is there. It's exciting because we're winning and doing the things necessary to play well. It just bodes well for us in the future.''

After winning just six of their first 23 games, they got healthier and went 10-1-1 in December. They were stuck at 27-34-4 record by early March. Then they finished on fire.

With standouts Sergei Bobrovsky (30-17-3 record, 2.69 goals-against average and .918 save percentage), Ryan Johansen (26 goals, 71 points), Foligno and Scott Hartnell (28 goals, 60 points) all back, there is reason to be optimistic.

''There's a good feel around the team right now, around the whole organization,'' said coach Todd Richards, who ended the season as the Blue Jackets' winningest coach with a career record of 127-105-21. ''It's what we expected this year.''

Besides the big years by the team's best players - Johansen and Foligno were the first Columbus teammates to ever top 70 points in the same season - there were plenty of other bright spots.

Rookies Marko Dano (8 goals, 13 assists and a +12 plus/minus rating) and Alexander Wennberg (4 goals, 16 assists) showed they belong in the NHL. So did defenseman Kevin Connauton, claimed off waivers from Dallas in November. He ended up being a solid blue-liner for the club.

The Blue Jackets, who will pick eighth in the NHL draft even with their power surge at the end, have several top prospects in the minors who could be ready as soon as next year. They include left wing Kerby Rychel and right wing Oliver Bjorkstrand, who wowed scouts who saw them play in the minor leagues.

In addition, several players who were injured for large chunks of the past season - defenseman Ryan Murray, centers Boone Jenner and Brandon Dubinsky and right wings Rene Bourque and David Clarkson - should be able to contribute more next year after they've fully healed.

''We can improve a lot from within,'' Kekalainen said. ''We have a lot of guys we see with a lot of potential. We have the youngest team in the league. Those guys can get to another level and that's going to make our team better. And some of our experienced guys are not too old to improve and get better.''

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Follow Rusty Miller on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/RustyMillerAP

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