After careening towards the Nail Yakupov sweepstakes, the result of an awful start (2-12-1) replete with shoddy defense, absent offense, substandard goaltending, a fragile team psyche, injuries and suspensions, the Columbus Blue Jackets were a team going nowhere. In short, they were in disarray.
However, a recent 5-4-2 run including a 3-0-2 record in their last five games has quelled the calls for heads – including the Team President, General Manager (GM) and head coach, among others – to roll.
What is the reason for the torrid – relatively speaking – run? Is it due to finally getting key players like Jeff Carter (injury) and James Wisniewski (suspension) together, allowing for chemistry? Is it the acquisitions of Mark Letestu and Nikita Nikitin, two players who were relegated to the fourth line and often a healthy scratch, respectively, with their previous teams? Is it installing a simple, trapping system, one that was once utilized by the Blue Jackets during the season of their only Stanley Cup playoff appearance season? Is it a newfound sense of urgency and a locker room who has finally awakened from their previous (carrying into the end of last season) 37-game slumber?
Or is it something else? Namely, have the Blue Jackets found their stopper – in goal?
For those who have given up following, much less caring about the Blue Jackets, there has been one major change in the team’s makeup – and that is none other than goaltender Curtis Sanford.
Wait a minute: Curtis Sanford? Are you sure you didn’t mean Steve Mason, he of the Calder Trophy award in 2009 yet floundering into a Ron Low or Jim Carey (the former Bruins goalie, not the actor/comedian) form of oblivion? Are you sure you mean Curtis Sanford, former American Hockey League (AHL) journeyman and former, rarely-used backup to Vancouver Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo?
As surreal as that sounds, Curtis Sanford has, at least in the short term, been the Blue Jackets stopper and possible savior of their presumably lost season.
Steve Mason, the presumptive – albeit perhaps only to Blue Jackets GM Scott Howson – franchise goalie has, to be kind, been substandard in the Blue Jackets net. Some have blamed a lack of offensive support, others a porous defense for Mason’s struggles, but the numbers – statistically one of the worst regular goaltenders in the NHL for the last 2 plus seasons, including this season where Mason ranks dead last in Goals Against Average (GAA) and Save Percentage (Save%) – don’t lie.
But Mason’s continued struggles have had a deeper effect on the Blue Jackets, particularly this season. His struggles have affected the team’s belief that they can win games, even with two impact scorers like Wisniewski and Carter.
It is a common belief among hockey players, at every level, that if the rest of the team has lost confidence in their goalie, it affects the team’s psyche and its level of effort, subliminally or otherwise. Above all, if a goalie struggles like Mason has for so long, it causes a team to press to score goals and to commit to the defensive side of the game. Basically, the rest of team feels it necessary to play a perfect game in all other aspects and that pressure usually winds up unraveling even the best of squads.
Whether his teammates lost faith in Mason is entirely his fault or not, it is quite evident that has played remarkably better with Sanford in the net. While Sanford has not been peppered in his last five games played, facing an average of 28 shots on goal/game, he has been able to come up with the key saves, something that has generally eluded Mason since his rookie campaign.
During his past five games starting in net,Sanford’s numbers are very impressive: A GAA of 1.27 and a Save% of .961. But it’s his calm demeanor and confidence that has rubbed off on his teammates and has assured his teammates that he will keep them in games, allowing scorers like Carter, Wisniewski and Rick Nash to gel and to score goals.
Can Sanford sustain his stellar play over the course of the next several games and help the Blue Jackets fight their way back into playoff contention? That’s difficult to predict – five games does not make a season, much less a run back into contention.
What it does say is that the Blue Jackets cannot and will not respond in a positive manner if Steve Mason returns to the Blue Jackets net. The ‘Steve Mason as a franchise goaltender’ experiment has been an abject failure – fair or unfair, that ship has sailed.
What it should also signal to GM Scott Howson is, rather than waiting to see if Sanford can continue to carry the Blue Jackets back into contention – Howson has made too many grave assumptions based on the belief that Mason was the franchise goalie to lead the Blue Jackets back into the playoffs – that he needs to acquire a NHL-caliber starting netminder. Goalies like Antero Niittymaki and Evgeni Nabokov appear to be available and Howson must, for the viability of the franchise, acquire such a goaltender to allow the Blue Jackets the ability to succeed.
However, in the short-term, the Blue Jackets appeared to have found their stopper – Curtis Sanford.