By Stephen Whyno
AP Hockey Writer
When Ulf Samuelsson watched the Columbus Blue Jackets pick up their 14th win in a row in Winnipeg last week, he could see the confidence oozing off their bench and out of their locker room.
It felt familiar.
“There’s certainly something that was going on in our locker room then,” Samuelsson said. “You’ve got to have the bounces for sure, but if you’re winning that many games (you’re) not letting your guard down.”
Samuelsson and the 1992-93 Pittsburgh Penguins won 17 consecutive games, an NHL record Columbus can tie Thursday during a visit to the Washington Capitals. One more win would put the 2016-17 Blue Jackets in the record book alongside the star-studded ‘92-93 Penguins, but the streaks aren’t close to identical — and the argument can be made that this one is already more impressive.
“I think it’s a bigger feat now to do it than it was back in the ’90s just because of the parity in the league and there was no salary cap back then,” former Penguins winger Shawn McEachern said. “It was just a different era. I think this is a tougher task that they’re approaching right now.”
Scotty Bowman, the Hall of Fame coach who was behind the bench for Pittsburgh during its streak, said it’s “unbelievable” what the Blue Jackets have been able to do with so many other good teams around the league, especially after losing four of their first six games. They’re 25-2-3 since.
Mario Lemieux had 27 goals and 51 points assists during the Penguins’ streak, while Blue Jackets’ leading scorer Cam Atkinson has 38 points for the entire season. The Penguins averaged 5.6 goals per game and had four future Hall of Famers in Lemieux, Ron Francis, Larry Murphy and Jaromir Jagr, who is still playing.
Pittsburgh got out-of-this-world-at-the-time goaltending from Tom Barrasso, who had a 2.35 goals-against average and a .923 save percentage. Columbus is averaging four goals a game and relying even more on goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, who has a 1.64 GAA and .941 save percentage and could win another Vezina Trophy.
It’s also a 30-team league now versus 24 back then, so talent is spread out and few teams could hope to stockpile stars like the Penguins did. And the sport has evolved significantly.
“The difference in number of goals scored — the live puck era or whatever you call it, small goalies, bad goalies — it’s different,” former Penguins winger Troy Loney said. “The goal-scoring is so much different now, much tighter games now consistently than I think back then.”
McEachern doesn’t think the ‘92-93 Penguins could even fit under today’s $73 million salary cap. They were also coming off back-to-back Stanley Cups, while the Blue Jackets missed the playoffs the past two seasons and are enjoying a return to relevance under coach John Tortorella.
Those Penguins and these Blue Jackets share demanding coaches and stellar goalies but little else in common. It’s also worth remembering that Pittsburgh’s streak ended with a 6-6 tie at New Jersey. Two of Columbus’ 16 wins are by shootout, which were added in 2005-06 and rid the league of tie games.
“We would’ve probably done pretty good in a shootout with the guys we had,” Loney said.
Many of the emotions are the same. Former winger Joe Mullen said the Penguins tried not to think about the streak just as much as the Blue Jackets are trying to avoid it now.
“You just keep playing and your confidence kind of builds,” said Jagr, who’s still playing as a member of the Florida Panthers. “You have a lot more fun. You just enjoy it. Confidence is a big part of that streak.”
Timing is also everything, and several players who have gone on double-digit winning streaks said the end can bring a lull and some unexpected losses. The Penguins’ March-April streak came almost right before the playoffs, and even though Bowman and players believe that team was better than the previous Cup winners, they lost in the second round.
Loney wonders if winning 17 in a row took a toll on the Penguins.
“A loss in there might not have been a bad idea at some point,” he said. “It takes a lot emotionally, physically and mentally to ride a streak like that.”
Samuelsson said the Penguins tried hard to just focus on the next opponent.
“When you’re on it, you get reminded by the coaching staff and everyone around that it’s not really important, the win streak, you’ve just got to play the game the right way and take one game at a time,” he said. “But it was a lot of fun.”
AP freelance writers Paul Gereffi and Mark Didtler contributed.