The Olympics are over and players are returning to their teams. For Columbus, the four Russians are back. Head coach Todd Richards and general manager Jarmo Kekalainen will return Monday. It’s time to get their mindset back into the NHL.
All that remains is 24 games in 48 days – 12 home and 12 away with six back-to-backs. It’s the stretch run to the playoffs and the intensity level will get ramped up. There’s a quiet determination among the guys in the room, as they don’t want a repeat of last season by missing out due to a tiebreaker.
Although this is a young team, there is playoff experience within their ranks. There is also one among them who has a shiny Stanley Cup ring and the experience of what it took to earn that ultimate prize. They know what it will take on their part to secure the second postseason trip in the history of the franchise.
They currently sit one point out of eighth place in the conference (wildcard spot). They are three points behind the Philadelphia Flyers and four points behind the New York Rangers (third and second place, respectively) in the Metro division. They also have a game in hand on both of those teams ahead of them. For this group, every game of the final 24 is a playoff game.
"I think we’ve been like that since ten games before the break," said Nick Foligno. "We’ve been playing some really good hockey. We understand, because it came down to a point last year and we just didn’t give it our ‘all’ for the whole season. I think that it’s a learning curve for us and that’s something that we want to make sure that we rectify this year."
Foligno has been to the playoffs three times with the Ottawa Senators. He’s one of the guys that knows what it takes to keep playing later in the month of April.
"We have to make sure that we’re ready from this break. We have twenty-four games to really put our stamp on this thing and get in the playoffs. I don’t think anyone is looking past that," he said.
There are guys that haven’t been there before, yet they have guys like Foligno to help show them the way.
"I think the biggest thing," said Foligno, "is that every second counts. Sometimes in a game, you may take your foot off the pedal for just a second and that’s when a team can creep up on you, especially when you’re in ‘playoff mode.’ I’m sure that every team down the stretch is going to be feeling the same way.
"That’s the biggest thing I’ve learned. In playoff hockey, there is no rest and there is no coasting. There’s none of that. I think that’s the biggest thing for the younger guys to understand. It comes with experience. It’s making sure that every time you’re on the ice you’re engaged and focused. That’s how winning teams play."
Ryan Murray is one of those younger guys. The rookie defenseman has played well this year, but now will get to experience a payoff push on the NHL level. He has a quiet, calm demeanor about him that seems at odds with him being so young. He doesn’t seem fazed by what’s going on around him.
"We’ve got to have that focus and energy for each game," Murray said. "We don’t want to wait for the last ten or five games to say ‘now we need to get going.’ We want to start right now. If we want to make the playoffs, we need to go on a good run here. We don’t just want to limp in there. We want to have a spot secured in the last three to five games."
That’s how tight the race for the playoffs is within the Metro division. It will come right down to the end of the season, the last week or possibly even the last game.
"We need to go on a big run. We’ve got the guys to do it,’ Murray said. "I think that if we play our game the way we’ve been playing that we’re going to give ourselves a real good chance."
He’s not going into this stretch run blind, as he has players like Nick Foligno, Nathan Horton and his defensive partner James Wisniewski (among others) to lean on for what to expect.
"You listen to those guys and whatever they have to say because they’ve got the (playoff) experience. That means a lot in this room. A guy like Horton that has won (the Stanley Cup), they know what it takes to get there and to win, as well. It’s a whole different story from what I’m used to in junior. It’s a whole new level. For me, I just try and listen to them and take all that I can in."
Although the perpetual smile is still there, you can see the focus and determination emanating from Nathan Horton. Yes, he has been to the playoffs before and won the Stanley Cup. And although he has that experience, he knows that this is a new year and that the playoffs start now for Columbus.
"From my time in Boston," said Horton, "we were always in a playoff spot. Not being in a playoff spot (here), that’s how you have to look at it. Every game is going to mean something. They are going to come quick and they’re going to go by quick. We need to be in a playoff spot at the end of 24 games. That’s our goal."
As one of the elder statesmen on this team at the ripe old age of 28, does he feel the need to help the younger guys understand what this push for the playoffs mean?
"I don’t really think that you need to say much. Everybody knows what we have to do and how we have to play these last 24 games.
"We have to play the way we play when we’re playing good. We’re a team that’s going to play hard every night. This is the playoffs for us to get into the playoffs."
Twenty-four games in 48 days — this is what it has come down to. Since Jan. 1 they have a record of 12-5-1. A record of 14-7-1 over the closing stages of the season should see them safely secure a playoff spot. If we’ve learned anything about this team this year, it’s that we shouldn’t be surprised with them reprising their eight-game winning streak from January. They know what needs to be done. It’s time to go forth and prosper.