COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - Nearly three weeks ago, the Columbus Blue Jackets were right where everyone has grown accustomed to finding them - at the bottom of the NHL standings.
In its 12th season, the club has perpetually been rebuilt after a succession of drafting disasters, bad hires and one-sided trades. Going young, trading for goals, beefing up the blue line - nothing worked. There seemed no hope for the fans.
But all that has changed.
"All season long, they've worked their tails off," director of hockey operations John Davidson said of his players. "And we're getting results now in the standings."
Suddenly, the often luckless Blue Jackets are one of the hottest teams in hockey as they get set to host the Phoenix Coyotes on Saturday night.
The Blue Jackets have collected points in a franchise-record nine straight games (5-0-4) to climb from doormat to the cusp of contention in the Western Conference.
"They've been playing really well lately," forward Patrick Kane said after his shootout goal gave Chicago a 2-1 victory at Columbus on Thursday night. "They're a good team, especially compared to last year."
There are three huge reasons for the turnaround.
First, Sergei Bobrovsky has been a stone wall in net. He was selected as the league's top player last week when he went 4-0-0 with a 0.77 goals-against average, .927 save percentage and his first career shutout.
He didn't stop there. He's given up five goals in his last five games.
Acquired for a second-round and two fourth-round picks last draft day from Philadelphia, the skinny Russian is one of the hardest workers on the team. After falling out of favor in the City of Brotherly Love, he has become a fan favorite in Ohio's capital city.
Second, a bunch of relative unknowns, old-timers and never-weres have developed into solid contributors for Columbus (10-12-6).
Matt Calvert was a fifth-round pick in the 2008 draft who hadn't really distinguished himself in 55 games over the last two seasons.
This year he has become a persistent nuisance to opposing teams, chasing down pucks and harassing players while showing a knack for doing a little bit of everything.
"We're starting to learn how to win hockey games," Calvert said.
Vinny Prospal, playing perhaps his final season at 38, leads the club in goals (nine) and in confidence. The Blue Jackets were leading Detroit 3-0 last week when Prospal got into a shoving match with defenseman Kyle Quincey. Then, in an incredible bit of gall, he directed Quincey's attention to the scoreboard.
It was like a serf talking trash to a king.
Finally, coach Todd Richards has his team playing as hard as any in the league.
"They're a tough team to play against," Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford said Thursday night. "They play hard and they've got some skill up front. Even their defensemen, they can fire the puck in from the point. They're well-rounded."
Richards is in his first full year as coach after being elevated midway through last season to take over for the fired Scott Arniel. The former Minnesota Wild coach is demanding and has a no-nonsense approach. He wasn't happy about his senior citizen, Prospal, pointing to the scoreboard and lectured the team after that game.
The next day, the Blue Jackets beat the Red Wings again, this time in Hockeytown.
After years of having a team that occasionally didn't show up for games, the fans love the current high-wattage club which seldom gets outworked. A crowd of more than 15,000 - granted, with quite a few Blackhawks fans sprinkled in - spent most of the overtime Thursday night standing and roaring as the teams traded thrusts and parries.
"Up and down, they had a chance, we had a chance. You could feed off the energy from the fans because the fans were enjoying it," Richards said, disappointed that his team had to settle for one point. "It was a great environment."
Columbus continues a five-game homestand with this matchup against the Coyotes (13-11-3). The Blue Jackets have won the last three meetings on their own ice but allowed five goals each time in two defeats at Phoenix this season.
The Coyotes opened a season-high four-game trip with a 3-0 loss to St. Louis on Thursday night, failing to win three straight for the fifth time in 2013.
"In reality, we didn't play well enough to win," goalie Mike Smith said. "We didn't play well enough to get those bounces going our way. We weren't ready to play from the drop of the puck. We had a better second (period), and we obviously were trying to press at the end of the game to get back into it."
Phoenix went 0 for 3 on the power play and has converted six of its last 56 opportunities (10.7 percent). The Coyotes have given five power-play chances to each of their last three opponents.
"We came out and took penalty after penalty in the first period," coach Dave Tippett told the Coyotes' official website. "You give a home team like that momentum and give them the lead, they're going to take it and run with it and that's exactly what they did."
This is the first game since Phoenix gave emerging star Oliver Ekman-Larsson a six-year, $33 million contract extension. The 21-year-old defenseman is second on the team with 17 points.
"When you watch us and you watch this young man, how he plays, you know he's not only a star now but he has a chance to be one of the best players in the league for a long, long time," general manager Don Maloney said. "That's why we stepped up and did it."
The Associated Press News Service
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