The Columbus Blue Jackets are on a roll. In 2014 they have gone 12-5-1, including a string of 8 wins in a row. They are in contention for a playoff spot as they sit just three points out of third place in the Metro division and four points out of second with a game in hand.
"We’ve started to find our groove," said Blue Jackets forward Nick Foligno.
But as of Saturday, staying in the groove will become a bit of a challenge. The team is on a mandated break and won’t return to practice for 11 days during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. They won’t have a game until February 27.
"You don’t want to stop; obviously the break is a nice time to relax, but you’ve got to try to stay in shape and focused as much as possible," said Jackets winger Nathan Horton.
Horton is the only player on the team with a Stanley Cup to his name and he knows what kind of dedication is needed to become a champion.
"We’re not where we want to be in the standings. Everyone needs to be prepared to play well when we come back," Horton said. "It’s a matter of taking care of yourself."
Some players may take a few days for vacation, but Horton will be focusing on maintaining the shape he’s in. The forward spent the first three months of the season, as well as a better part of the off-season, recovering from shoulder surgery. To date, he’s played in 18 games of the 58 game season.
"(After surgery) there was only so much I could do in the weight room — it was tough," Horton said. "I’ll have a game plan to keep myself in the shape that I am."
In addition to maintaining fitness, the Jackets will need to stay dialed in mentally so that their focus doesn’t wane. Long breaks away from the ice haven’t been so kind to the Jackets–the team has endured less than perfect starts the past two years. The 2012-13 season saw the Jackets win just 3 of their first 10 games; the start of this season saw the club split their first 10.
"We saw how things went over the off season when we came back and were kind of out of sorts," Foligno said of this season’s start. "We’re learning from that and making sure we’re staying focused and getting healed up and ready for a big push."
Foligno believes the mental edge will stick and that the Olympic break will help the team by allowing players to get some rest and be fully healed for the final 6 weeks of the NHL regular season.
"It’s great for a lot of tired sore bodies and great to regroup and spend some time with our families," Foligno said. "You are able to get your energy back."
But not everyone gets to rest.
The NHL is participating in the games and the Jackets are sending four players, Head Coach Todd Richards and General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen to represent their countries.
Fedor Tyutin, who will be playing for Team Russia in his third Olympics, feels prepared to balance the toll of travelling halfway around the world and back again to play more hockey.
"As an athlete, you have to focus on today–you can’t think about tomorrow," Tyutin said. "We are going to play extra games, so it will be huge how we manage our rest, but I’m not worried about the physical impact."
Playing for one’s country is a significant honor. Tyutin and goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky have been able to keep that from becoming a distraction as they focus on continuing the Jackets’ winning ways.
"Of course I’m excited — (the Olympics are) a huge, huge event for me and for us," Bobrovsky said. "But when I’m here–I’ve got Columbus logo on my chest; I’m focused here and on every game and winning every game."
The Russians are excited to represent their country in the first games to occur in their home country. The games have been mired in debate about readiness and safety, but the Jackets players aren’t concerned about that either.
"Our President understands the responsibility he has for every other country," Tyutin said. "I believe the security will be top level."
The one thing the Olympians won’t speculate on is the results.
"It’s tough to predict," Bobrovsky said. "There will be great players from all over the world."
Ultimately, how the Jackets respond after the Olympic break will go a long way in determining their fate this season.
"Guys are hungry–we see what spot we’re in," Foligno said. "We’ve had to work hard to get where we are and I think that is going to be a real motivating factor for us to play really well when we get back."
The Jackets return to play Feb. 27 in New Jersey. You can catch the action starting at 6:30 p.m. on Fox Sports Ohio. The team returns to home ice March 1 to take on the Florida Panthers in Nationwide Arena. The puck drops at 7 p.m. For more information or to buy tickets visit www.bluejackets.nhl.com.