Amid Columbus' awful, awful opening to the season, the only bit of defense the team and its fans had was something along the lines of waiting for everybody to be healthy. The team was built in the offseason around the additions of James Wisniewski and Jeff Carter and for the first month and a half of the season; they had not played in the same game. Now they are both playing and the Blue Jackets are now winning.
But it was another injured player returning that has been even bigger. And this one wasn't really on anybody's excuse radar.
Turns out the return of goaltender Curtis Sanford has been huge. Or at least it would appear that way. It was no mystery that Steve Mason in goal was as big an issue as anything else in Columbus' struggles, but I am not sure anybody believed there was a possible solution within the organization.
It wasn't long ago that in this blog we were discussing the possibilities of the Blue Jackets getting a major shakeup in the front office and coaching staff. Some were just saying give it more time, all they needed was to trade for a good goalie. The only problem was the Jackets are right up against the cap and have no flexibility.
This feels as good as a trade right now.
In the five games prior to Sunday's 2-1 loss to the Blues, all Sanford starts, the Blue Jackets picked up at least one point. His record is now 3-0-2 after Columbus' 5-1 beating of the Buffalo Sabres on Black Friday. He entered Sunday with a goals against average of 1.27 and a save percentage of .950. Not bad. Not bad at all.
The recent run has done what not long ago seemed laughable: the Jackets had climbed out of the NHL cellar. With the Devils' squeaker over the Devils on Saturday, the Jackets returned to the basement, but they are hot on the heels of the Isles, Ducks and Flames to move (or down) the draft lottery list.
But the big acquisitions have been doing their part, too. Carter, back after breaking his foot, is finally looking comfortable with his new team. With two beautiful assists against the Sabres, Carter brought his total to five points (3-2=5) in the last five games. Wisniewski has also recorded five points in that span as he also contributed two assists to the win on Friday.
However none of that would matter much if they weren't getting better goaltending. Now, with Sanford getting the bulk of the work, they are. It's not too late to crawl their way back into the picture, but a lot of that will ride on Sanford continuing to play at a level this high.
If he keeps those ice blue pads, maybe he will.
Hangover Part II
Much was made about the champion Bruins' hangover to start the season. They came out slower than any team not named the Blue Jackets. Of course, that's long-ago history as the Bruins have won 11 of the past 12 games, earning a point in all of them.
But not as much has been said about the Canucks' meager beginning. After all, this was the best team in the regular season last year and was within 60 minutes of winning the Stanley Cup. Like the Bruins, the Canucks returned the core of their team and were expected to be powerful once again. Yet they were merely average.
That might be changing. With a road trip that included a 5-0 domination of the Coyotes in a "packed" (with blue) Jobing.com Arena on Friday and a gritty 3-2 win over the Sharks in San Jose on Saturday, the Canucks have won four in a row.
With the eight points in four games, they are now two points behind the Minnesota Wild, two points from reclaiming their seemingly rightful position atop the Northwest Division (they have lived in the Northwest penthouse for a few seasons).
In goal for each of those four games? That would be Cory Schneider, not Roberto Luongo. Schneider -- who had back-to-back shutouts in the four-game run -- was already seen by many to be the best backup in the game, rumored constantly in trade talks around the league over the last season-plus. Now the only goalie that Canucks fans want to throw around in those conversations is Luongo, the Vezina finalist from just last season.
There was already a goalie controversy in Vancouver even before Schneider began playing so well. The controversy? The fact that Luongo was the starter. That was enough to cause a civil war among the fans in British Columbia. This just makes it more heated.
It's show time
We got a taste of the Winter Classic on Saturday with the Flyers and Rangers waging battle in New York, a 2-0 Blueshirts win. Brandon Prust fought not once, but twice, much to the pleasure of John Tortorella.
It was also the first time this season that the league's highest-scoring offense, the Flyers, were grounded. It should come as no surprise that it was Henrik Lundqvist who was first to do it. They don't call him King Henrik for nothing.
But over the weekend, we also got our first taste of the HBO 24/7 series that's set to debut on Dec. 14. No, I'm not talking about the game, but HBO's 12-minute preview of the must-see show for hockey (and non-hockey) fans.
Warning: If you don't already have HBO in your cable/dish subscription plan, the following teaser might make you change your mind (video courtesy of nyrangersblog.com).
There wasn't even an appearance from Jaromir Jagr or Sean Avery in this tease, so clearly they must be saving the best for the show, a refreshing change from movie trailers that show you the only good parts of the movie.
But if he were to change work addresses, he just might move to Southern California.
The Blackhawks took their turn at the SoCal double dip with a game Friday in Anaheim and Saturday in Los Angeles. What did Toews do? Oh just help the 'Hawks take both games with three goals and three assists. One of those goals came 1960s style with Toews parked in the crease without a helmet and scrambling to hammer home the loose puck.
I have no doubt that when this season is all said and done, Toews will have his say in the Hart Trophy conversation.
Real quickly on the Ducks, this is just too atrocious to leave out (from Eric Stephens of the Orange County Register: The Ducks have now lost six in a row, 12 of 13 and 15 of their last 17. No other word for that than horrendous.
It's not even December yet and the intrastate rivals in Florida have already met five times. For the second time in the first two months, the Lightning and Panthers had a back-to-back set beginning in Sunrise and finishing in Tampa.
This time, it was the Bolts getting the better of the Cats. One massive reason was the play of Steven Stamkos. He had three goals, including the game-winner in overtime on Friday night, and an assist. He was the best player on the ice on Saturday, no questions asked.
It continues to amaze me how little attention Stammer seems to be generating. After all, he proved last year he's one of the top three scorers in the league. He has quietly amassed 14 goals and 10 assists this season. Yet there seems to be hardly a peep about him.
A few more four-point weekends for the Lightning and I'm sure he'll start getting his due.
At this point I'm starting to think this will be a regular section in the Weekend Wrap. At least as long as the Capitals continue to play the way they have been.
With their 5-1 beating in Buffalo -- where the Sabres' Zack Kassian scored his first career NHL goal -- the Caps moved to 3-6-1 in their last 10 games. In the past eight, it's been particularly awful.
Check out this stat from Stephen Whyno at the Washington Post. The Caps have now been outscored 34-17 in their past eight games. Minus-17 in the past eight? That's worthy of one big OUCH.
The upcoming week for the Caps has dates with the Blues and Penguins. So things might not get better quite yet.
Quote of the weekend
After the Penguins destroyed the Senators 6-3 and Sidney Crosby continued his stellar return with three assists, Sens forward Nick Foligno attacked Crosby for taking a headshot at him late in the game. He wasn't too happy with Sid, saying he was disappointed and more or less called Crosby a hypocrite.
While Crosby was quiet about the criticism, his coach Dan Bylsma wasn't. Here's what he had to say in response.
"We're talking about a player that bumped into our goalie three times. With the score 5-1 and intentionally going into our goalie, he can expect more than Sidney Crosby coming at him and talking to him during the game. That's how we feel about those situations. He was in our net falling over our goalie, and I don't think there was any question about the intent."
Photo: US Presswire