Streak over, Blue Jackets turn attention to staying on top
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By STEPHEN WHYNO
Even before the Columbus Blue Jackets' winning streak ended, coach John Tortorella wondered what would happen next.
How would a team that hadn't lost in five weeks handle the aftermath?
After giving his players a welcome day off following a clunker of a 5-0 loss to the Washington Capitals that ended the streak at 16, Tortorella will soon find out. The Blue Jackets host the New York Rangers on Saturday and Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday with little margin for error in the stacked Metropolitan Division.
"I think we've crossed that bridge is that we know we're a good hockey club and not one game is going to deter how we feel about ourselves," Tortorella said Thursday night after the loss. "It's an unforgiving league and we've preached it: You can't worry about what just happened. We've got to move by this right away."
Knowing from years of experience that losing reveals more than winning, Tortorella is anxious to see how players respond Saturday against the team he coached for five seasons and in the coming weeks.
"You cannot exhale," Tortorella said. "We have so much hockey to be played. I still don't know who we are. ... We have a long ways to go here to really define who we are."
For the past five weeks, the Blue Jackets were defined by a winning streak that fell one short of the 1992-93 Pittsburgh Penguins' NHL record. Their power play led the league, 2013 Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky was on top of his game and there was excitement around a club that missed the playoffs the past two seasons.
Tortorella pulled Bobrovsky after five goals on 23 shots Thursday but had nothing but good things to say about his starter.
"We have climbed on his back from day one," Tortorella said. "He has started his play from the World Cup, you could see where he was mentally after an off year last year. He's a big reason why we go on this run."
Tortorella and his philosophies and evolving coaching style are, too. After replacing Todd Richards early last season, he said the Blue Jackets had to rid themselves of the stench of entitlement and earn his respect.
The streak went a long way toward doing that - and getting Columbus back into the playoffs. But even now, the Blue Jackets lead the Rangers and Stanley Cup champion Penguins by only three points and the Capitals by five in the division.
There's no breathing room to be found.
"We're going to have a lot of divisional games coming up, a lot Eastern Conference games, a lot of four-point nights and I think we're ready for the challenge," center Brandon Dubinsky said. "Really proud of this group and I know this group can handle it, so I'm excited to see where we go from there."
After outscoring opponents 64-27 in 16 consecutive wins, the Blue Jackets were skated out of the building by the Capitals. Bobrovsky wasn't at his best, but Tortorella acknowledged he "stretched" the goalie affectionately known as "Bob" by playing him too much during the streak and would like to balance the playing time more with backup Curtis McElhinney moving forward.
"I can just get back to kind of just looking at our situation with the season and figure out the goaltending situation, which is very important," Tortorella said. "I think it's going to be very important for us - the decisions we make there as we go through the second half of the year."
Troy Loney of the '92-93 Penguins felt the emotional toll of that winning streak late in the season contributed to their second-round postseason exit, and the Blue Jackets should expect at least a lull. The Philadelphia Flyers are 1-5-2 since their 10-game winning streak.
With 45 games left in the season and their focus on the playoffs this spring, Tortorella hopes his players learn from the streak. That process is already underway.
We figured out "how to carry ourselves in pressure situations and also what it feels like to win," captain Nick Foligno said. "You expect to win every time you step on the ice and that's something that hasn't been the case here on this team for a long time. We're building that culture and that identity that we talked about, but it's how we go about our business and how we play the game."
Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno at http://www.twitter.com/SWhyno
Updated January 6, 2017