Everyone knows the Columbus Blue Jackets were playing as well as anybody down the stretch last season, blazing to a 19-5-5 finish that left them an excruciating tiebreaker away from the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Now Columbus is 12-4-0 since the calendar flipped to 2014 this season, and winger Matt Calvert agrees this run seems familiar.
"Yeah, it’s very similar," Calvert noted. "I think part of it is we’re getting contributions from everyone, different lines on different nights, Bob (Sergei Bobrovsky) has been great, and our energy has been great as a whole. It’s really been a team effort, and that’s what made us so successful last year."
Much like last year, the Blue Jackets started slowly this season and inched their way along before finally catching that elusive wave of consistency. Calvert says there’s a common thread between last season’s great finish and this team’s current run.
"The biggest thing for me is confidence and learning how to win as a team," he explained. "I think that’s something we have to do as a group to be successful. We learned how to win last year; obviously, it wasn’t enough since we didn’t reach our goal of making the playoffs. But we stuck with it this year, even with the rocky start and then the win-one, lose-one situation.
"We’ve stuck with it the whole time, trying to get better in areas that we weren’t great," he continued. "We’ve kept going, and this year I think we’re continuing to learn to win as a team. You’re not going to be at your best every night, and the big thing for us is finding a way to win those games even when we haven’t played as well as we had hoped. I think we’re really maturing as a team in that sense."
With two games to go on this critical three-game swing out West, the Blue Jackets completed the first objective they had when they arrived in California: get off to a good start. Columbus earned a convincing win over Anaheim, which has the NHL’s most points, and Calvert says that win was a confidence boost, but he and his teammates are striving for more.
"It’s huge; it’s always a test when you play the top team in the league, and every team gets up for that," said the Manitoba native. "You want to prove yourself and showcase yourself as a team and prove who you are when you’re playing them. It was a tough game in Anaheim; they’ve been great in their barn all year. We just wanted to come in and play our game, and I think that’s what we did.
"We didn’t worry about their record or whether they’re better than us or not," Calvert went on. "We know we’re a great hockey team, and we just went in as a group and chipped away and played a full 60 and came away with a good win. Now we’ve got to keep on going. We have two good teams, and it’s going to be two good tests. It’ll be a good benchmark for our team, and we want to go into the break with two more wins."
A quick glance at today’s NHL standings amplifies the tightness of the playoff race in the East and the magnitude of each game. Every team that’s on the playoff edge is hoping to push itself into the playoff mix before the Olympic break. The Blue Jackets greeted their California Thursday morning as the third team in the Metropolitan Division, and they want to — at the very least — maintain their footing as a team on the inside of the playoff cut line.
"Yeah, I think that’s what everyone wants," Calvert said. "You’re not going to be playing any games for 20 days, and we want to have a good feeling going into the break. We’re also going to use that break to get better, too. We have some guys going to the Olympics, which should be great. And the rest of us will just rest up and try to get better."
In the meantime, there are two tests in the way – as Calvert puts it – one in L.A., and the other in San Jose.And Calvert will be the first to tell you the intensity just keeps on ramping up.
"It does. With only 26 games left, you’re in the final stretch," he noted. "Our goal is to get in the playoffs, so we’re putting it on the line every night. It’s going to be a grind, but that’s what you want to play for, and the challenge makes it fun."