Blue Jackets in playoff hunt with 2 games left

(Eds: Updates with details, quotes. With AP Photos.)By RUSTY MILLERAP Sports Writer

Ryan Johansen is fearless on the ice for a 20-year-old.

The Columbus Blue Jackets’ center is wary, however, of having to grow a playoff beard.

”A few of us might have some trouble,” said a smiling Johansen, some peach fuzz sprouting from his chin and his sideburns. ”But, who cares? I’ll grow it as much as I can.”

If things keep going the way they have for the past few weeks, several prominent players for the Blue Jackets will have big problems trying to come up with the traditional look of a participant in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Columbus was 5-12-2 on Feb. 24, but has gone 17-5-5 since.

”I came up at the end of last year and everybody was good and professional about playing out the season,” said 23-year-old rookie defenseman Dalton Prout, who has been a revelation with a +14 plus/minus rating in 26 games. ”But there’s just a different demeanor about everybody this year. It’s like we’re not just playing to compete, we’re playing to win. And it’s awesome.”

The Blue Jackets – 30th of the 30 teams in the NHL just two months ago – are tied for seventh in the Western Conference with Minnesota heading into Tuesday’s games. However, the Wild own the tiebreaker because they have more wins.

Columbus, which was 3-10-2 in its first 15 road games but is 6-2-0 in the last eight, plays at Dallas on Thursday before closing out the regular season on Saturday before a capacity crowd against Nashville.

Minnesota has three games remaining, as does Detroit (with 50 points) and Dallas (48).

Of course, the Blue Jackets have to take care of their own business.

”Pretty much every game is a playoff game for us,” said Marian Gaborik, a three-time 40-goal scorer acquired at the trade deadline from the New York Rangers. ”Everybody leaves everything out there every shift, every period. It’s going to be like that these last two games. It’ll be difficult but we believe and everybody in this room wants to be there (in the playoffs).”

The formula is simple: The Blue Jackets have done it by trusting in ”Bob” – goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky – and coming up with a star a night to make a big play.

Bobrovsky, unwanted in Philadelphia and picked up for a second- and two fourth-round draft picks, may just be the best goaltender in all of the NHL. Several surveys and columns in Canada and elsewhere have listed him as the front-runner for the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top netminder.

Since March 1, the Russian has been an iron curtain for the Blue Jackets. He has gone 16-5-3 with a 1.65 goals-against average and a .945 save percentage.

Consider that he did not have a shutout in the first 98 games of his career but then had four in a span of 15 games.

”The first half of the season, it seemed like we were in every single game, losing by a goal,” said 23-year-old winger Cam Atkinson. ”It was tough. But your goalie on any given night has to be your best player and for sure he’s been our best player.”

On top of that, the Blue Jackets seem to always have someone stepping into the spotlight when most needed.

The game against Dallas will be the last in a six-game road trip, which has featured two stirring victories.

In a 3-2 win at Anaheim on April 17, Nick Foligno’s pass was redirected by Fedor Tyutin in overtime for the victory, handing the Ducks on their second home loss in regulation this season.

After a 2-1 setback at reigning Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles ended a five-game winning streak, the Blue Jackets completed a season sweep of San Jose on Sunday night when veteran R.J. Umberger forced a turnover and Johansen scored with just over 90 seconds left of a stunning 4-3 victory.

The dramatic turnaround this season for a franchise that had made it to the postseason once in its first 11 seasons has energized the crowds at Nationwide Arena and caught the attention of many publications who have rightly mocked the Blue Jackets’ many blunders in trades and draft picks over the years.

”Sure, it’s a great story,” said Vinny Prospal, one of the team’s oldest players at 38 and its leading goal scorer (along with Mark Letestu) with 12 goals. ”But we’re not finished yet.”

Coach Todd Richards, who took over midway through last season, has been demanding but has earned his players’ respect. His system has helped them be successful.

The Blue Jackets have sustained some big injuries – No. 1 pest Matt Calvert is out right now with a broken index finger on his right hand, along with perhaps the most skilled offensive player, Artem Anisimov. But even that hasn’t put the brakes on the season.

”We’ve found ways to win,” Richards said.

Now they just have to find a way to win two more so they can put aside their razors.

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