The Columbus Blue Jackets have taken 2019-20 by storm, perhaps shocking most of the hockey world. If you asked any hockey fan in September about their predictions for this team, you likely received the same answer: a bottom-dweller with “lottery pick” written all of over them. Fast forward to February and the team currently occupies a playoff spot with a respectable 30-18-12 record. Although, you would never know by looking at their offensive statistics. They are currently sitting bottom five in goals scored and are sporting a dreadful 25th-ranked power play, which is clicking at a measly 16.1%.
So after reading these sub-par statistics, I am sure you are all thinking the same thing; how is this team fighting for a dance in the postseason? Well, the Blue Jackets are earning points through a strict, defensive game, which has them tops in the league in almost every category. From spectacular goaltending to gritty and calculated defensive play, to hard-working special teams. The Blue Jackets are a well-oiled defending machine.
There is no question that their success begins in the crease. Without the stellar play of both Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins, their season is a much different story.
It begins with Korpisalo, who was the big question mark heading into the season. Could he handle the weight of being a starting netminder, a role he had yet to live? Well, it did not take long for him to silence the critics. Through his first 32 games, the Finnish backstop earned 17 wins while posting a 2.49 goals against average, which sat seventh among goalies with 20 or more starts. Life was good for the 25-year-old, he was enjoying his best statistical season, great team success and his first All-Star nomination to boot. Unfortunately, all of that came to an abrupt halt on Dec. 29 when he suffered a torn meniscus, forcing him out of the lineup for roughly six weeks.
Enter Elvis. While going winless through his first eight starts (0-4-4) as the backup to Korpisalo, the Latvian native settled into a zone and went on a run for the ages. Since taking over the starting job, Merzlikins has posted a fantastic 12-4-3 record. His numbers have been out of this world with a 1.67 goals against average and a .945 save percentage. He has jumped from zero to a league-leading five shutouts, all of them in just a seven-game span. In a little over a month, he has gone from a fading prospect to a potential rookie of the year candidate. While his incredible numbers are likely to take a slight dip, he has shown that he can handle the workload at the NHL level. Things should get very interesting for the coaching staff once both netminders are healthy.
Korpisalo is back travelling with the team so he should slot back into the rotation in the very near future. This will alleviate some pressure off of Elvis and make for a fantastic 1A/1B option for the team as they head into the final push for a playoff berth.
All Around Defence
With their offensive statistics falling into the bottom end of the league, the Blue Jackets are picking up all the slack with some of the best defensive numbers around.
Through 60 games, the Jackets sit second in the league with only 147 goals allowed this season. While goaltending is the prime reason for this low number, you can also thank their three cohesive defensive pairings which play a conservative, shutdown game. The team allows only 29.7 shots per game which is a telling sign that opposing teams struggle to find worthy offensive opportunities, forcing them to take low-percentage shots. When they do manage to take a shot, it’s likely not making it’s way to the net. The Blue Jackets currently have two players in the top-10 in blocked shots and as a team, sit fifth with 898 total blocks this season.
With the loss of Seth Jones, these numbers could suffer down the stretch as he ate up the majority. However, players like Vladislav Gavrikov and David Savard should be able to carry the load and continue on with the trend.
It is important not to overlook their impressive penalty kill. Much like their even strength play, their PK has been outstanding this season. Since Elvis took over on New Year Eve, they sport the leagues best percentage, killing penalties at an 89.5% rate.
They sit seventh throughout the entire season with an even 83%, allowing only 26 goals while a man down. Luckily, the team rarely uses these powerhouse units as they are currently the least penalized team with only 181 calls against them this season.
The Final Stretch
They have not made it yet, and boy is it going to be tough to keep up these numbers without all-star defenceman, Seth Jones. However, one thing you can count on is this team to drag you through the mud and make you earn every point on a nightly basis. They do not give up on games often, and the tight-nit strategies that coach John Tortorella is well-known for should keep them in the hunt right up until the end. A nice rental player at the deadline would not hurt either.