COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Blue Jackets’ 16-game winning streak, which ended just shy of an NHL record and just before the Rangers visited Saturday night, was more than impressive. It was just plain different.
It was different from the unmatched 17-game streak produced by the 1992-93 Penguins, who were defending champions and played in a less balanced era. The Columbus effort also was different from the 24 wins with which the Golden State Warriors began last season. They, too, were reigning champions.
The Jackets’ burst was clear out of the blue. Think of it this way: Imagine the current Knicks reeling off a landmark run like that. But this is different even from that. Not only did the Blue Jackets fail to make the playoffs last season, they finished last in the Metropolitan Division, the same circuit that they lead right now. What Columbus did, before losing to the Capitals, 5-0, on Thursday night and the Rangers, 5-4, on Saturday night, was pierce the atmosphere — like the blasts that come out of the cannon every time the Blue Jackets score a goal at Nationwide Arena.
How else to describe it but with “Oh, baby,” the catch-all expression of amazement popularized on Rangers telecasts by analyst John Davidson, now the Blue Jackets’ president and the man who hired John Tortorella as coach.
Tortorella took the uncharacteristic step of addressing his players in the locker room late Thursday night to tell them how proud he was. After a back-to-business morning skate yesterday, he told reporters: “They had a ball. We didn’t talk about the number, the streak. There wasn’t much conversation about that. But they’re athletes. They want to hang their hat on something.”
The stunning streak, amid the NHL’s intense parity, was a product of vintage Tortorella: ultra-demanding, particularly about defense. Yet even he has been different. He has allowed his forwards more creativity. And he has generally permitted a degree of enjoyment — no doubt stunning to the Rangers players who reportedly did not give him salutary reviews before he was fired as their coach.
“I think earlier in my career, I probably would have done something stupid and not let them have as much fun,” he said. “I think our team is mature from last year to now. In the grind of a season — and it is a grind — it was tremendous for us to have some juice around us in the last couple of weeks here especially, to really feel something. In a team that hasn’t really had much around them.”
Cam Atkinson, who scored his 19th goal against the Rangers on Saturday night and has 20 assists, said: “It’s a two-way street. For me, he puts me out there in all situations, so he expects me to give it my ‘A’ effort every single night.”
In Columbus these days, “A” stands for attendance. Four of the past five home games have been sellouts. TV ratings are up 88 percent from last season. Merchandise sales are jumping. Those all represent arguably the greatest difference of all for a franchise that has been trying to find its way since joining the league in 2000.
If the Blue Jackets do lose their way on the ice, they will hear about it. Tortorella, reminded that former Ranger Brandon Dubinsky was very self-critical after the defeat in Washington, said, “He should have been,” describing Dubinsky’s line’s play as “brutal.”
But, the coach added in a new hopeful tone, “They’ll be better.”