Twelve seasons in the Western Conference yielded one playoff appearance and many years of disappointment for the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Their first season in the East has gone much better.
Fresh off clinching a postseason berth, the Blue Jackets look to sweep the season series with the host Tampa Bay Lightning on Friday night.
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Columbus toiled near the bottom of the West since entering the league as an expansion team in 2000-01, getting swept in the first round by Detroit in its only playoff appearance in 2008-09.
The Blue Jackets (42-31-7) will get another crack at earning their first postseason win after setting a team record for victories in a season with Wednesday’s 3-1 win over Dallas.
Columbus and Detroit each have 91 points, though the Blue Jackets hold the tiebreaker for the East’s first wild-card spot. It also is tied with Philadelphia for third in the Metropolitan Division, but the Flyers hold the tiebreaker with two games to play.
"This is a great accomplishment for our team and for our guys," said coach Todd Richards, whose team has won three straight. "But to me, this is just the first step. When we set out back in September, the first thing we talked about is winning the Stanley Cup – but first, you have to make the playoffs. It’s always about looking up. "We’re in the seventh spot (right now) and we’re going to try and move up."
Forward Jared Boll, one of the few holdovers from the Blue Jackets’ last playoff squad, played in his fifth game after missing more than four months with a torn tendon in his ankle.
”It’s been a long time,” Boll said. ”It’s just the first step. We’ve still got a long way to go.”
Columbus is ending the season playing four games in five nights – all in different cities – culminating with this three-game road trip that ends Saturday against Florida.
The Jackets, 1-4-2 all-time in Tampa Bay, have won the first two meetings with the Lightning, both at home. Nick Foligno’s second-period goal held up in a 1-0 win Dec. 3, then the Blue Jackets rallied with two power-play goals in the third to beat Tampa Bay 3-2 on Jan. 13.
The Lightning (44-27-9) will face Montreal in the first round of the playoffs, though they are still fighting for home ice in that series and sit one point behind the Canadiens, who lost 2-0 to the New York Islanders on Thursday. Tampa Bay has one game in hand on Montreal.
Steven Stamkos and Tyler Johnson had a goal and an assist apiece in Thursday’s 4-2 win over Philadelphia. Johnson’s 24th goal, assisted by Stamkos, broke Stamkos’ team rookie record.
”To have the ability to win out and get home ice, that’s what you want,” Stamkos said. ”You want to play meaningful games down the stretch. Obviously, we were proud to get into the playoffs, but it would be icing on the cake to get home ice. It’s in our hands.”
Anders Lindback made 34 saves against the Flyers after stopping 25 shots in 54 1/2 minutes of relief for the injured Ben Bishop in Tuesday’s 3-0 win over Toronto.
Bishop is dealing with a left elbow injury, and it’s been reported that he may not be ready for the start of the playoffs.
Both teams’ starting goaltenders are unclear for this contest, as the Blue Jackets could choose to rest Sergei Bobrovsky after he made 33 saves against Dallas.
The reigning Vezina Trophy winner has won each game during Columbus’ winning streak while posting a 1.31 goals-against average.
The Blue Jackets will be without right wing Nathan Horton for six weeks after he underwent surgery for an abdominal injury. Horton has five goals and 14 assists in 36 games this season.