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DBJ’s 2013 Columbus Blue Jackets season in review: Part Three

By Tom

PART THREE: How to Win a Vezina in Two-Thirds of a Season, and Other Thoughts on an Amazing String of Games

I was thinking of calling this part “The Promised Land” for the first two parts of the season in review series weren’t all that uplifting.  Sure, the Columbus Blue Jackets’ defensive evolution over the first 20 games of 2013 was something to see, but the wins just weren’t coming.

Well, my friends, I’m glad you stuck around because this is where it starts getting good.  And it starts with the goaltender.

As I type, Sergei Bobrovsky is a finalist for the NHL’s Vezina Trophy, given to the league’s best goaltender.  Wait a minute – Bobrovsky?  The guy who was 3-6-3 over the first 20 games, splitting time with now-Philadelphia Flyer Steve Mason?  The guy who was letting nearly 3 goals a game slip by him over that same period?

Yeah, that guy.  And Bob’s up for the Vezina for a reason – because his performance between games 21-48 was that impressive.

People often talk about how a team draws confidence and inspiration from its goaltender, how a few incredible saves can lift a franchise’s confidence.  I’ll suggest that the team’s defensive performance in games 14-20 lifted Bob to a higher plane.   Or maybe it really was Bob  finally making the mental transition from the larger KHL (European) ice sheets to the smaller “rock-em, sock-em robots” ice sheet of the NHL.  Point being, we got this out of him:

Team record Bobrovsky record Avg. goals against/game
Games 1-20 5-12-3 3-6-3  2.75
Games 21-48 19-5-4 18-5-3  1.58

Ay caramba!  Bob shed over a goal per game when comparing the first 20 games against the final 28.  That’s mind-blowing, especially when you think about the six one-goal games lost in the first 20.  In a 48-game season, winning just one or two of those six one-goal losses…well, it would have put the Blue Jackets in the playoffs.

And let’s be clear: While Bobrovsky surely benefitted from Todd Richards’ nearly airtight team defensive scheme, he was pulling his own weight.  For example, have you ever seen a guy stop seven shots in roughly ten seconds?  If I wasn’t there live to see it right in front of me, I would think that this video was a fabrication:

Take a moment and catch your breath.  Or watch it again and marvel at some of the most amazing goaltending that you may ever see.  Can’t blame you if you did.

So yes, the goaltender’s play appears to have been the missing link for the Blue Jackets in 2013.  When Sergei Bobrovsky finally stepped up and asserted his dominant self, the Blue Jackets went on an epic run, one that came within a hair of the playoffs.

Thanks for playing, Henrik Lundqvist.  So glad you came, Antti Niemi.  Enjoy your honor as a Vezina Trophy nominee because there’s no way on this still-somewhat green earth that anyone but Sergei Bobrovsky is going to win the big prize.

Let’s put Bob’s exploits into a full team context.  To do that, we’ll go back and look at the tables and charts that we considered in Part Two.  How important was the team defense?  Try this on:

Record Losses by more than 1 goal Wins by more than 1 goal
Games 1-20 5-12-3 6 2
Games 21-48 19-5-4 4 8

Eight more games and two fewer tight losses.  The defense clamped down, and Bobrovsky was sealing the deal.

But look further.  With the defensive scheme etched in stone, the offense finally started to spread its wings in the final two-thirds of the season with eight wins that could be categorized as “not tight”.  Not good enough for you? How about this?

Goal scoring distribution, games 21-48

This is nearly the mirror image of the first 13 games.  Remember that – the “nightmare scenario”?  Permit me to dredge up that memory for comparison’s sake:

Goal scoring distribution, games 1-13

See how the percentage of the opposition goals for dropped back so far?  The bad guys scored two goals or less in 68 percent of the Blue Jackets’ games over the last 28 – up from 40 percent  in the first 20 games.   At the same time, the Blue Jackets’ offense saw games with three or more goals went up to 62 percent of the games, again up from 40 percent in the first 20.  The worm had turned.

And while the story of this season is a story of team improvement, let’s not delude ourselves and think that this team, as constructed in 2013, is built to be destroyers of worlds and crushers of dreams.  The Blue Jackets were still 25th overall in goals for over the course of the season – 2.40 goals per game, nearly a whole goal behind the league-leading (and future divisional foe!) Pittsburgh Penguins and their 3.38 goals per game.  This, despite the improvement in scoring mentioned above.

The true improvement for this team, to nobody’s surprise, came on defense.  The Blue Jackets were 10th in the league in goals against with 2.40 goals per game (same as goals for – go figure!).  To give you a sense of the spread, Chicago led the league with 2.02 goals against per game, and Florida trailed the league with 3.54 goals against.

The team needs more genuine goal scorers, something that general manager Jarmo Kekalainen tried to address in acquiring Marian Gaborik from the New York Rangers for Derick Brassard, John Moore, Derek Dorsett and a 2014 6th round draft pick.  Brassard, the only real scoring contributor in the bunch, put up 6 goals and 9 assists over the 26 games of February and March before getting shipped off to the Rangers.  Brassard probably would have challenged Mark Letestu for the team lead in goals (despite having lost his will to play hockey).  Kekalainen apparently realized the madness inherent in trusting a bunch of sub-18 goal scorers to win him games – and picked up Gaborik, who put together a quick 3 goals and 5 assists over his 12 games in Columbus while nursing an abdominal injury.

I promised you happy in this post, and I’ll deliver happy as we wrap up the review of games in the CBJ’s 2013 campaign.  There were a number of terrific moments down the stretch, but none struck me as deeply as a single incident on March 9th, when Vinny Prospal – having taken a little too much grief from a losing Detroit Red Wing named Justin Abdelkader.  The Blue Jackets were up by a 3-0 score (which ended up as the final), and Abdelkader was trying to Get His Goon On.  Prospal would have nothing of it, so he pointed at the scoreboard.

That’s right.  After, what, a dozen years of being Detroit’s poor cousin to the south, the Blue Jackets not only controlled the game but also the season series against the Red Wings.  And Vinny Prospal reminded Abdelkader of this fact with a gesture that I never thought I would see in this context.

Prospal took a ten-minute unsportsmanlike misonduct penalty for the move, something even the Red Wings announcers howled over:

I know everyone had “that moment” when they saw the long-suffering Blue Jackets turn the corner into a team that was expected to win games and not just lose them.  It could have been the ridiculous 7-0-2 homestand between March 3rd and March 22nd (interrupted by a single road game in Detroit on March 10, but the CBJ won that, too.).  It could have been the 5-1-0 season-ending road trip that no reasonable person thought that the team would break even on.  For me, it was when Prospal went scoreboard. One small gesture, symbolic of a (hopeful) culture change on Nationwide Boulevard.

The season wound up on April 27th at Nationwide Arena, where the Blue Jackets manhandled the Nashville Predators, 3-1 in regulation.  The team had salvaged their season after their terrible start, putting themselves into a virtual tiebreaker situation with the Minnesota Wild.  The CBJ dropped the puck an hour earlier than the Wild, who was playing against the Colorado Avalanche, so the regular season ended with no idea of whether the incredible second-half run would be enough to put the team into the Stanley Cup playoffs for the second time ever.  A couple thousand fans sat in their seats as the Wild-Avalanche game was shown on the Nationwide big screen, hoping against hope that the terrible Colorado team could pull the upset.

Minnesota won their game, and they, too, had 55 standings points.  The Blue Jackets had more shootout wins than the Wild, however, and the first tiebreaker went to the team with more regulation and overtime (non-shootout) wins.  The Wild advanced, and the Blue Jackets went home.

It was a terrific run, one that Blue Jackets fans will not soon forget.   As I said back in the preseason:

The sports saying goes that while it is enjoyable to live life in your league’s penthouse, the real fun is in taking the elevator ride to the top.

 

It appears that the elevator ride took a little while to get started, but it flew like a rocket once it did.   And we all enjoyed the ride – thrilled with what we saw and full of expectation for the ride still to come.

So there’s the season.  There are a couple loose ends to tie up, and I’ll cover them in the next (and final) season in review post.

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