Win streak behind them, confident Blue Jackets turn to what comes next

Friday January 6th, 2017

WASHINGTON, D.C. – After the death rattle finally sounded on the miracle run, after the Columbus Blue Jackets had fallen for the first time in 17 games, John Tortorella walked into the Verizon Center media room Thursday and spied the recorders raised at the ready. “S---, huh?” the coach said, not in anger but with a whaddya-gonna-do kind of resignation. “He means crap,” a PR official tried correcting. “No,” Tortorella replied, drawing laughter from the unusually large crowd of reporters, “I mean s---.”

After the second-longest winning stretch in NHL history cratered with a 5-0 loss to host Washington, after the sellout crowd had finished chanting, “KILL THE STREAK,” Tortorella walked into the visiting dressing room Thursday and addressed his players. “All year long I haven’t been in there,” the coach said later, swelling not with frustration but pride. “But I’d be remiss, like I told them, if I didn’t. That is one hell of a run by a hockey team. They should feel really good about it.”

Indeed, the postmortem was barely as bleak as the lopsided score might suggest. Yes, goalie Sergei Bobrovsky was yanked after allowing five goals for the first time since the season-opener. Yes, the Blue Jackets finished the first period facing their first multi-goal deficit since this streak began Nov. 29, and never recovered. Yes, 10 Capitals had registered points, all five strikes had come at even strength, and Columbus’s power play, the NHL’s blistering best, went 0 for 5. But hey, as Blue Jackets winger Scott Hartnell said, “Every good streak has to come to an end.” It's just… “definitely didn’t want it to happen in this fashion.”

To emphasize the end, however, would be to ignore the bulk of what Capitals coach Barry Trotz hailed as, on three different occasions during his postgame presser, “very, very impressive.” Unbeaten through all of December, the Blue Jackets had rocketed, from damn near nowhere, atop the league. They had carved an identity from speed, precision and pieces locking perfectly into place. They pasted defending the Cup-champion Pittsburgh Penguins by six goals before Christmas, then ended Minnesota’s own 12-game tear on New Years’ Eve. They had ensured, after a miserable season in 2015-16 that saw Tortorella assume control after an 0-7 start, outright esteem.

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“I probably won’t appreciate it until we’re done this season, but it’s something I’m very proud of this group,” said captain Nick Foligno, who along with linemates Brandon Saad and Alexander Wennberg had a six-game individual point streak snapped. “We’re starting to forge an identity and a respect factor in this league. Teams are understanding that we’re for real.”

Sixteen down, one away from matching the ’92-93 Penguins for the all-time mark, Columbus instead ran into the reigning Presidents’ Trophy winners…and their decidedly for-real goalie. After getting yanked early from a start under Trotz—which happened earlier this week against Toronto—Braden Holtby entered Thursday with an 8-0-0 record in his next outing. He was tested, particularly in the second period with bang-bang saves on Columbus defenseman Markus Nutivaara and a point-black chance from Saad, but emerged perfect on 27 shots for his fourth shutout of the season.

“That’s what we talked about in the room: It took a performance like Holtby to probably knock us off,” Foligno said. “Things were just hitting him. We had chances—glorious chances—that we seemed to shoot into him, or even shots that were just through screens that he somehow swallowed up. Credit to him. He played outstanding tonight. A lot of those times, pucks were bouncing off him or going off us.”

Fortune instead swung toward the other bench. Capitals fourth-liner Daniel Winnik struck first, 5:06 into the opening period, roofing a rebound just outside the crease. Defenseman John Carlson scored when Marcus Johansson’s centering pass caromed off his skate. Bobrovsky made the initial save on Nate Schmidt, but the puck flopped straight to the defenseman, whose second chance redirected off Columbus’s Brandon Dubinsky. Andre Burakovsky and Justin Williams added the fourth and fifth goals, excess by that stage, causing Tortorella to summon Curtis McElhinney in relief of his starter.

“We have climbed on his back from day one,” said Tortorella of Bobrovsky, who had entered his 300th career start on a personal best 14-game winning streak. “You could see where he was mentally, after an off-year last year. He’s a big reason why we go on this run. Yeah, so I was contemplating taking him out after the second period. I wanted to see if he had any juice. You never know in this league right now. Things can change quickly. But that’s a hell of a run by Bob. He leads the way there.”

Twenty-three years and nine months ago—before either member of Columbus’s current No. 1 defensive pairing (Seth Jones, 22; and Zach Werenski, 19) had been born—the main events of April 10, 1993 unfolded on opposite ends of the emotional spectrum. On the one hand, the expansion Ottawa Senators lost their 38th straight road game, an NHL record for futility still unbroken. On the other, Pittsburgh won its 17th in a row, 4-2 over the New York Rangers, increasing its historic mark after passing the ’81-82 Islanders’ record of 15.

Had the Blue Jackets gotten past Washington to tie the Penguins, they would’ve returned home Saturday to face history against a fitting opponent: the Rangers. Instead, still atop league standings with a three-point lead over Pittsburgh in the juggernaut Metropolitan Division, they’ll host New York and the Flyers in a weekend back-to-back, looking to at once keep building and start anew.

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In a break from custom, Tortorella canceled Columbus’s scheduled Friday practice and instead called a Saturday morning skate; typically the latter get axed while the formers are legendarily brutal. But as attention mounted over five-plus blissful weeks—Foligno appeared on SportsCenter; national media, including Barry Melrose, filled press row in D.C.—the promise of an emotional end seemed increasingly inevitable. “It’s been a while since we felt this in this room,” Foligno said. The challenge, now, comes not in keeping the streak alive, but in accepting the end and facing what’s next.

“I trust the team,” Tortorella said. “I think they have been honest with their play... We talked about this: Don’t hope you’re going to win, know you’re going to win. I think we’ve crossed that bridge. We know we’re a good hockey club. Not one game is going to deter how we feel about ourselves.”

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