By Mitch Stacy
AP Sports Writer
COLUMBUS — Coach John Tortorella hates talking about it, but the Blue Jackets’ improbable 16-game winning streak has Columbus and the NHL buzzing.
A win on Thursday night in Washington will tie Columbus with the 1992-93 Pittsburgh Penguins of Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr for the longest streak in league history. The team’s surprising success and the streak have given long-suffering Blue Jackets fans much to cheer about lately. Just don’t ask Torts about it.
“I just want us to keep our heads down, and I just want us to play,” he said after Tuesday night’s 3-1 win over Edmonton. “You know what we are? We’re a group of businessmen, as far as I’m concerned.”
Columbus hasn’t lost since a 2-1 setback at Florida on Nov. 26. The Blue Jackets won all 14 games in December and their 27-5-4 record is the NHL’s best. Boasting the league’s best power-play unit, they sit atop the rugged Metropolitan Division with reigning NHL champs Pittsburgh and the New York Rangers trailing.
“As soon as our game was over (Tuesday) night, guys were checking to see if they won or not. We had it on,” said Washington defenseman Brooks Orpik, who will try to slow down the surging Blue Jackets on Thursday. “If anyone says they weren’t (paying attention) they’re lying because we had it on in the change room.”
What’s even more astounding is that Blue Jackets were among the league’s dregs last season, finishing 34-40-8. Without any blockbuster trades or big name free-agent signings in the offseason, expectations for the 2016-17 bunch were fairly low.
But a mixture of experience and youth — outstanding first-line defenders Zach Werenski and Seth Jones are 19 and 22, respectively — along with terrific goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky has lifted the Blue Jackets to unprecedented heights and has them eyeing the Stanley Cup playoffs for just the third time in the 16-year history of the franchise.
Tortorella preaches never getting too up or too down about anything that happens. Captain Nick Foligno said there hasn’t been much talk about the streak in the Blue Jackets locker room.
“As you get closer, I think that’s when you start to taste it a little bit more, understand it a little bit more,” he said. “But for us, it’s just knowing how we’re going to go about our business. That’s what I’m so proud of. It’s easy to get your eye off the goal when you’re going through something like this. But for us the goal isn’t the streak, it’s what’s coming ahead and what’s coming down the road.”
Cam Atkinson leads the team with 18 goals and 38 points through 36 games and scored the opening tally against Edmonton on Tuesday.
“I think we’re just rolling,” he said. “I personally don’t think about (the streak), other guys might. Obviously, it’s really cool if you think about it, but right now we’re just focusing on trying to get (another) two points.”
But a lot of other people are talking about it, including Scotty Bowman, who was coach of the 1992-93 Pittsburgh team that won 17 straight. Bowman, now a senior adviser to the Chicago Blackhawks, said the Blue Jackets’ string of wins is “unbelievable” considering the parity in today’s game.
“They’ve got a lot of things going for them, a heck of a power play, and they’ve got a goaltender that’s helped,” Bowman said.
The 1979-80 Philadelphia Flyers own a record 35-game unbeaten streak that will almost certainly never be matched because they played when overtime didn’t exist in the regular season. The Flyers won 25 games and tied 10 more from Oct. 16, 1979, until Jan. 6, 1980.
For now, the Blue Jackets are just looking ahead to the Capitals. And after Tuesday’s win in front a vocal near-sellout crowd, even the irascible Tortorella was in a decent mood.
“Everything feels good right now,” he said.
AP Sports Writer Stephen Whyno in Washington and freelance writer Mark Didtler in Tampa, Florida, contributed.