Penguins center Sidney Crosby (87) skates past Blue Jackets defenseman Jack Johnson (7) earlier this season.
Russell LaBounty/USA TODAY Sports
COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Columbus Blue Jackets have never won a playoff game.
Forward Mark Letestu looks at that as an opportunity instead of a stigma.
”I don’t think there’s a burden,” he said during preparations for the Blue Jackets’ first-round playoff battle with Pittsburgh that opens Wednesday. ”This team’s into firsts. We set a franchise record in wins, we’re back in the playoffs now after a long drought. This team’s all about setting firsts. I don’t think we view that as an `if’; I think it’s a `when.”’
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At the very least, the Blue Jackets are hoping their second trip to the Stanley Cup playoffs lasts somewhat longer than the first.
In 2009 they took on the Detroit Red Wings. Four games and eight days later, it was all over.
Jared Boll, the longest-serving Blue Jacket, concedes that maybe the big thing five years ago was just making it into the postseason.
”It was a goal of ours and we made it,” he said. ”But this year, it’s different. We’re here now and we expect to do good things. We’re not satisfied with just making the playoffs. We want to be successful.”
The Blue Jackets, owners of the first wild card in the East after a franchise-best 43-32-7 (93 points) season, are a decided underdog against the Penguins.
Still, they’re aware that just getting into the playoffs isn’t going to cut it anymore. The bar has been raised.
Coach Todd Richards said just winning a game against the Penguins isn’t the point.
”It would just be one game. We have to win four games. It’s about winning the series,” he said. ”One game doesn’t win you a series. We have to be prepared to put games behind us right away, good or bad. And get ready for the next game.”
With one of the youngest rosters in the NHL – an average age of between 26 and 27 years old – many of the Blue Jackets are still kids. They’re even younger without forwards Nick Foligno (lower body) and R.J. Umberger (shoulder), who may return later in the series, and without prized offseason signing Nathan Horton, out for the postseason after abdominal surgery.
Besides, it’s the young guys who drive the team. Take, for example, the club’s scoring leader, Ryan Johansen. At the ripe old age of 21, he piled up 33 goals and 30 assists. But he still is a newcomer to the sport’s biggest stage.
At Monday morning’s practice, he was transfixed by skating around on the home ice – which for the first time bore the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs logo.
”That was cool,” he said with a grin, an occasional few hairs visible in his first playoff beard. ”It’s just kind of another pinch you get where it’s actually going to happen and we’re here and we’re going to be at Nationwide (Arena) in front of our fans.”
Of course, the Penguins, Metropolitan Division champions (51-24-7, 109 points) aren’t awed by such things. The franchise has won three Stanley Cups (the most recent in 2009), makes annual trips to the postseason and has a glittering tradition featuring superstars from Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr to current standouts Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
On top of that, the current Penguins went 5-0-0 against Columbus this season.
Yet the Blue Jackets don’t sound as if they’ll be intimidated.
”Why should you be afraid?” said 25-year-old Cam Atkinson, a miniature (5-foot-8, 174 pounds) terror on the ice who had 21 goals and 19 assists. ”It’s just what you’ve been working up for your whole life. You’ve got to cherish the moment and the opportunity.”
One of the club’s veterans, fourth-line center Derek MacKenzie, isn’t concerned about how the youngsters will handle the pressure.
”We’ve been one of the youngest, if not the youngest team, in the NHL all year,” he said. ”We’ve turned that from a bit of a negative to a bit of a positive. These guys have stepped up. Guys like Boone (Jenner), Joe (Johansen), Cam (Atkinson), Matt (Calvert) and Ryan Murray – they may be boys on paper, but they play like men. I’m excited to see them in Game 1.”
Backing up the defense is Sergei Bobrovsky, who followed up a Vezina Trophy as top goalie in the league with another strong season. He set career marks for wins (32) and shutouts (5) while posting a 2.38 goals-against average and a .923 save percentage.
He had been traded by Philadelphia two years ago after wilting in the playoffs. Now he seeks a new identity with the Blue Jackets.
”The playoffs are the most important time in hockey, any year,” he said. ”Right now, we’re getting ready for Game 1. Everyone will forget what’s happened in the regular season or the past. It’s kind of a new season. That’s what we’re looking forward to.”