COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — When the Columbus Blue Jackets beat the Montreal Canadiens two days before Christmas for the team’s 12th consecutive win, the sell-out crowd at Nationwide Arena stayed put and cheered long past the final horn.
Understandable, given that the fans here haven’t had much to celebrate in the team’s 16-year history.
Just a season removed from a last-place finish in the Metropolitan Division — coach John Tortorella called 2015-16 “embarrassing” — the Blue Jackets have hockey’s best record fueled by a roster light on stars but deep in key contributors.
Goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky led the way against the Canadiens on Friday, stopping 36 shots in a 2-1 victory, including two acrobatic blocks using the toe of his skate. The previous night, Scott Hartnell was the star, getting a hat trick in a 7-1 win over the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins to take over first place in the league’s toughest division.
The Blue Jackets are off to their best start ever at 23-5-4. They have the league’s largest goal differential (plus-45) and haven’t lost in regulation since the day before Thanksgiving.
Columbus is hunting its first ever division title and third postseason appearance after limping to a 34-40-8 record last season, a shocking feat since the core of the roster largely returned.
So what’s the difference?
“Mental,” said Tortorella, who replaced Todd Richards after the Blue Jackets started 0-7 last season. “We’re a much better mentally equipped team, in handling things, in understanding what it is to be a pro. More businesslike.”
“The energy,” said left wing Brandon Saad, who led the team last year with 31 goals and 53 points. “When you’re winning hockey games, everyone is coming in excited and with confidence and we’re playing well as a team. Last year, the way things were going, it was tough coming to the rink.”
Another reason for the turnaround is the resurgence of captain Nick Foligno, one of four players with 10 or more goals. He’s back to his old self following a disappointing 2015-16 in which he had just 37 points — he led the team with 73 the season before.
“I think the biggest thing is that we have an identity,” Foligno said. “It’s something we didn’t have. Every team needs to have that to be successful. We’re a depth team, good defense, we play fast, obviously great goaltending, and we really believe in ourselves right now, which was maybe lacking last year.”
Columbus has also gotten a jolt — and some big minutes — from some emerging young stars. Defenseman Zach Werenski is pulling over 21 minutes per game and showing surprising maturity for a 19-year-old rookie. Werenski is paired with 22-year-old Seth Jones, another fast, aggressive defender and top-notch passer.
Sam Gagner has also been a pleasant surprise. The 27-year-old journeyman signed a one-year, $650,000 free agent contract over the summer and has 14 goals already after scoring eight in 53 games with the Flyers last season.
“Being on a winning team helps,” Gagner said. “Coming to the game and knowing your role and what’s expected of you, and knowing there’s a good possibility of winning the game, that’s exciting. I’ve enjoyed being on a team like this.”
Columbus hasn’t made the postseason since 2013-14, when it lost in the first round. This improbable team doesn’t just look like a rare playoff-worthy squad, though. It seems primed to compete for the Stanley Cup.
Just don’t expect to hear that coming from the locker room.
“We have to stay so focused on what we have to do each day because we simply are not good enough to think we’re OK here now,” Tortorella said. “We have to concentrate every day on what we’re trying to do, and that’s where I think we made the biggest improvement.”
Follow Mitch Stacy at http://twitter.com/mitchstacy