-- WASHINGTON, D.C. -- When last season mercifully came to an end for the Columbus Blue Jackets, there was regret, of course, and anger and disappointment. But if there was an overriding sentiment for many of the players, it was one of relief.
Thank goodness that nightmare is over.
"That's a hard thing to say because you battle all year long, but for us, for me, a sense of relief just that we could put this one behind us now and start to look forward to the season upcoming, still knowing there was a lot of work that has to be done," Blue Jackets captain Nick Foligno said. "But I was looking forward to at least starting on that, and I think a lot of guys in the locker room were as well."
The Columbus captain was sitting in the lobby of a Washington-area hotel on Wednesday afternoon. In a little more than 24 hours, Foligno and his teammates would take the ice against the Washington Capitals -- with a place in the history books on the line.
A win Thursday against Alex Ovechkin and the defending Presidents' Trophy winners would tie the NHL record for most wins in a row, at 17. The record is held by the 1992-93 Pittsburgh Penguins. You might remember that Penguins team was coming off two straight Stanley Cup championships.
The Blue Jackets? They're coming off two miserable seasons that saw them finish 15th -- second to last (34-40-8) -- in the Eastern Conference last season, and 11th the year before (42-35-5) in spite of lofty expectations. Heading into Thursday's game, the Blue Jackets are first overall at 27-5-4.
To juxtapose the two realities -- the team that seemed adrift after last season and the team that today is the top franchise in the NHL -- is an exercise in mental dexterity.
In some ways, it just doesn't compute.
"It's wild because everyone's asked that," Foligno said. "And literally you can't even allow yourself to go there because you're just so caught up in game by game, and that's what's got us here. And that's what I love about the group that we have right now is that every guy genuinely has not gotten caught up in that and has just realized how hard it is to win in this league."
The captain admitted he's been part of teams that have won four or five games in a row but did so by getting favorable bounces that didn't necessarily suggest a team had earned being on even a small roll.
Now, no team wins 16 games in a row without its fair share of puck luck, but the fact is the Blue Jackets have been much more good than lucky.
Counting two goals earned in shutout wins, they have outscored opponents 64-27, which isn't surprising given they lead the league with a plus-52 goal differential.
Their power play, also the best in the league, is cooking at 28.3 percent during the streak. Eight times this season the Blue Jackets have scored multiple goals on the power play, and five of those games came during the streak. Also impressive during the 16-win run: Ten players have scored a winning goal, the team has scored first 11 times and has led after two periods 11 times.
"I would surmise that once they got beyond 10 wins, the self-imposed pressure and commitment to keep the streak going has worked to their advantage," said one longtime NHL executive and scout.
"They are playing with the urgency and focus that the playoffs usually generates. Their opponents are challenged now to measure up to that urgency."
Seven players have at least 11 points during the 16-win streak, including Cam Atkinson, an absolute revelation this season who is tied for sixth in the league with 18 goals and has scored 10 times and added eight assists during the streak.
Well, maybe not a revelation.
"I've always been Cam's biggest fan," Johansen said. "I think the world of his game and how he works. The thing I most appreciate about his game, for myself, is the way he penalty-kills and plays away from the puck. He's an absolute horse.
"It kind of bothers me that everybody says, 'Wow, the Blue Jackets, I can't believe it, where did this come from?'
"It just doesn't happen overnight," he added. "There's no special X's and O's being thrown around -- it's just those guys going out there and playing and working. I'm the last person who's surprised."
As the wins have piled up, there's been a curious mix of good-natured joking about the streak and good old-fashioned superstition about not wanting to mess things up.
Before home games, for instance, Foligno and Scott Hartnell grab dinner at the same place.
"We would always go there anyways," Foligno said. "But it's almost like we're going there because we can't miss this."
The pair go to the same spot before flying out on road trips together.
"I know that for me, you jokingly do it, but there's a base of seriousness to it, too," Foligno added. "You don't want to be the guy that messes up the jinx here."
But maybe this isn't about jinxes or superstitions -- Foligno joked he hoped his teammates were still doing laundry in spite of the streak, ignoring the old superstition of not washing your underwear when you're winning -- but something more for a team that had a decided lack of luck the past couple of seasons.
"I'm hoping it's karma that I had to answer so many bad questions last year -- what was wrong with me, what was wrong with the team," Foligno said with a chuckle.
"I'm really enjoying this for the guys."