WASHINGTON — John Tortorella has been waiting for this.
The Blue Jackets coach enjoyed riding a 16-game winning streak, but when it ended with a 5-0 clunker against the Capitals on Thursday night, Tortorella was ready to really begin evaluating his players.
Knowing from years of experience that losing reveals more than winning, Tortorella is eager to see how players respond Saturday against the Rangers and in the coming post-streak weeks.
"You cannot exhale," Tortorella said. "We have so much hockey to be played. I still don't know who we are. … We have a long ways to go here to really define who we are."
For the past five weeks, the Blue Jackets were defined by the winning streak — which began with a 5-1 win over the Lightning on Nov. 29 — that fell one short of the 1992-93 Penguins' NHL record. Their power play continued to lead the league, 2013 Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky was on top of his game, and hype built up around a club that missed the playoffs the past two seasons.
After replacing Todd Richards early last season, Tortorella — who led the Lightning to its only Stanley Cup in 2004 — said the Blue Jackets had to rid themselves of the stench of entitlement and earn his respect. The streak went a long way toward doing that — and getting Columbus back into the playoffs.
But even now, the Blue Jackets lead the Rangers and defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins by only three points and the Capitals by five in the absurdly difficult Metropolitan Division. There's no breathing room to be found.
"We're going to have a lot of divisional games coming up, a lot Eastern Conference games, a lot of four-point nights, and I think we're ready for the challenge," center Brandon Dubinsky said. "Really proud of this group, and I know this group can handle it, so I'm excited to see where we go from there."
After outscoring opponents 64-27 in 16 consecutive wins, the Blue Jackets were skated out of the building by the Capitals as Bobrovsky was chased with five goals on 23 shots. Tortorella acknowledged he "stretched" Bobrovsky by playing him too much during the streak, and he would like to balance the playing time more with backup Curtis McElhinney moving forward.
"I can just get back to kind of just looking at our situation with the season and figure out the goaltending situation, which is very important," Tortorella said. "I think it's going to be very important for us — the decisions we make there as we go through the second half of the year."
Troy Loney of the 1992-93 Penguins said he believes the emotional toll of that winning streak late in the season contributed to their second-round postseason exit, and the Blue Jackets should expect at least a lull. The Flyers, whom the Blue Jackets host Sunday, are 1-5-2 since a 10-game winning streak.
With 45 games left in the season and their focus on the playoffs this spring, Tortorella is giving the Blue Jackets the day off Friday before facing the Rangers while hoping players learn from the streak. That process is already underway.
We figured out "how to carry ourselves in pressure situations and also what it feels like to win," captain Nick Foligno said. "You expect to win every time you step on the ice, and that's something that hasn't been the case here on this team for a long time. We're building that culture and that identity that we talked about, but it's how we go about our business and how we play the game."