Really, how do you explain this? How in the world have the Columbus Blue Jackets come from way down there to stand on the precipice of completing one of the great turnarounds in NHL history?
R.J. Umberger, can you help us out?
“I think it’s just the character of these guys,” said the Blue Jackets veteran winger. “I think the culture’s just different, where it’s a never-give-up attitude here. Also, I think the work ethic is just a constant factor every game. It’s the same; we know what we’re getting from everybody, and when those things are constant, you’re able to have success.
“And obviously, we’ve got a goalie who’s hot right now, and that kind of feeds everybody.”
Incredibly, after their win at Dallas Thursday night to close out a 5-1-0 road trip, the Blue Jackets still have a chance to join the Stanley Cup Playoffs party, with one game to go in the regular season.
But they can’t do it by themselves. Columbus will reach the post-season by picking up two points Saturday night against Nashville and hoping Minnesota picks up a maximum of one point in its final two games, or Detroit falls in regulation to Dallas Saturday. There is one other possibility: Columbus picks up a single point Saturday night, and the Wild lose their last two games in regulation.
Whatever unfolds by the end of play Saturday, the fact that the Blue Jackets have gone from their 5-12-4 start to an 18-5-3 run over their last 26 games is nothing short of incredible. Columbus has become the talk of the NHL, and goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky has become the favorite to win the Vezina Trophy as the league’s best goaltender.
As usual, Thursday’s game in Dallas, the latest in a seemingly endless string of must-win games, featured a different hero. Cam Atkinson, who hadn’t picked up a point in the previous four games of the character-testing road trip, scored the game’s first goal just 19 seconds into the first period. He would add a late third-period power play goal to give the Blue Jackets some breathing room in their 3-1 win. That’s been the key for this team during its logic-defying run – its balance.
“For sure the biggest strength of our team is how we can play four lines; we can roll ‘em all game,” said Umberger. “Our fourth line has scored big goals for us, they’ve changed momentum with their forechecking, they’ve done a big job for us. And our other three lines provide balanced skill, they can all be out on the power play, they can be out there at any time in the game and score big goals. So, it’s tough to defend a team that has so much balance that any given line can be hot on any given night.”
This is Umberger’s fifth season with the Blue Jackets. In his first season with the team, he scored three goals in the team’s playoff ouster in four games to the Detroit Red Wings. As Blue Jackets fans know, the past three seasons have been devoid of any meaningful late-season games, and that’s what has made this playoff push such a thrill ride.
“For sure,” said Umberger, “when you’ve been playing meaningless games here the last few years this time of the season, this is a thrill. This is what we want to be doing every year. This is what we play for, so this is definitely a lot of fun.
“This is what it’s all about,” he continued. “You know, playoff atmosphere hockey for the past month, it’s been a heck of a ride, and we want to keep the same momentum and the same effort from our team going.”
Keep the momentum going, perhaps right into the playoffs? That’s right, playoffs. With apologies to Jim Mora, we ARE talking about playoffs, because the Blue Jackets have refused to quit, and they’ve reignited the pride for hockey in the city of Columbus.
“Yeah, we’re finally giving Columbus some respect it deserves,” said Umberger. “You have to earn it; no one’s going to give it to you. The past few years we definitely didn’t earn it, so it’s great to see our fans proud to wear the logo. They’re proud of this city and this team, and people are recognizing what we’ve done.”
The mission isn’t quite accomplished, but it’s been one remarkable ride from one remarkable team. See you Saturday.