Blue Jackets players rush from the bench after a replay confirmed the sudden death winning shootout goal by' Ryan Johansen against the Wild. The Jackets hope to similarly be celebrating a playoff berth.
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Beginning Friday night, the Blue Jackets embark on the final sixteen days of the regular season. Over the next two weeks, they will play 10 games, five on the road and five within the friendly confines. Ten in sixteen will determine if Columbus makes only their second playoff appearance.
Currently, the Blue Jackets occupy seventh place in the Eastern Conference (first wild-card spot). There is still a logjam for the wildcard positions, with four teams (Columbus, Washington, Detroit, Toronto — all with 80 points) vying for a chance to extend their seasons and avoid hitting the links in early April.
The Blue Jackets also sit just three points behind the third place Philadelphia Flyers, and trail the second place New York Rangers by six points, in the Metro division. With a possible twenty points up for grabs, Columbus has entered the crux of their season. It’s now "make-or-break" time.
"First of all," said Blue Jackets forward Brandon Dubinsky, "we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves here. We all know it’s coming, we all know what the schedule is. Having said that, I think that we have a mentally tough group in here."
The club has shown that they are a resilient group throughout the course of the season, but in particular since ringing in 2014. Since Jan. 2, they have gone 20-10-2 and had an eight game winning streak. They’ve had some clunkers but managed to bounce back rather quickly from adversity.
"There’s a little thing called adrenaline that starts to take over," continued Dubinsky. "That’s something, as hockey players, you live for. It’s the opportunity to play in the playoffs and the opportunity to win the Stanley Cup. If you don’t have that kind of drive, you shouldn’t be playing and we don’t want you on our team."
There are young players on this roster that have never experienced the pressure cooker of a run to the playoffs at the NHL level. While that might be cause for concern on many other teams, it doesn’t seem to affect the Blue Jackets. The veterans in the room are doing what they must to drive home just how important these games are.
"We’ve got to be the guys that drive that," said Dubinsky. "It’s our responsibility to make them understand the importance of the games and understand the importance of the playoffs. As we’ve gone on, I think these guys are getting more mature. These guys are becoming better professionals and realizing the stakes.
"I think that the leadership in this room, and I’m not talking about myself, have done a good job hammering home the point of how important it is."
Columbus head coach Todd Richards has done well with the young team that has been assembled. He’s nurtured the youngsters along, helping to integrate them into the team playing at the NHL level. He shows no signs of being worried about how they, and the rest of the team, will play down this final stretch of games and possibly into the post-season.
"I look at it as we’re sharpening ourselves and getting ready for the playoffs," said Richards. "I think at this stage of the season, adrenaline is starting to take over, the mind controlling the body."
Forward Boone Jenner is one of two rookies on the team, with defenseman Ryan Murray being the other one. Richards is not surprised at the poise that he is showing as he navigates his way through the first year of his NHL career.
"There’s lots of things that he’s done," Richards said, "throughout the year, I wouldn’t say surprised me, although that is probably the right word, just because he’s so young. When you watch him against men, good defensemen, he just protects the puck. He gets in tight spaces where the puck is up against the boards and the defenseman has him pinned, he’s able to somehow maneuver out of it and come out with the puck.
"He does some things that, to me, he has some skills. His size and strength helps him. But his tenacity on the puck is another thing that really helps him. He’s done a lot of things this year that get you excited as a coach."
In 62 games this year, he’s amassed 13-10-23, +5. He’s playing with poise and, similar to Ryan Murray, the verve of a player that’s been in the league for a few years. In short, he’s found his game at the NHL level. He seems to understand what is at stake for the Blue Jackets as they play these last ten games.
"Right now," he said, "we control our own destiny. Obviously, these games are huge and we know that. I think it gets us ready for when we get in a playoff spot, that we’re ready for that kind of hockey. The playoffs are a new season where you start from scratch and the standings don’t matter. I think, for sure, that we’ll be able to keep it (intensity) up. It’s hard to not be up for those games. Hopefully we can get in and experience that."
Jenner doesn’t see Columbus as the youngest team in the league anymore and doesn’t have any youthful gaze of being wide-eyed at playing in the NHL. Both him and fellow rookie Ryan Murray have grabbed the brass ring and ran with it.
"At this point of the season," Jenner continued, "we have enough games under our belt. We’re a really hard working team. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter when we play any team that is older. Once you get out there, it’s the same game. It comes down to who wants it more. This is what you want to play for. You want to play (the games) to play in the playoffs, the postseason. It’s fun and exciting."
"Throughout the year, I’ve felt more comfortable. I’ve gotten better as the season went on and I just want to keep getting better. This is the most important time of the year. This is when I want to be my best."
Over these last 10 games, Columbus is playing for the opportunity with which the postseason beckons them. They didn’t like the feeling of missing out on the playoffs last year and do not want to miss it now. To a man, they just want the opportunity.
"I think back to an interview that (former NHL player) Jeremy Roenick did in 1992 when they (Chicago Blackhawks) lost to the Penguins in the Finals," Dubinsky said. "Afterwards, he said, ‘I never understood what this feeling would feel like and I can’t wait to get the opportunity again.’ And, as we all know, he never got the opportunity again.
"So, you never know when your opportunity is. Every year that passes that you don’t win or every year that passes and you don’t make the playoffs, it becomes harder and harder. I’ve been (in the NHL) seven years (eight, including this year), I haven’t won and it’s starting to feel like I better give myself an opportunity quick because I can’t play forever. I think everybody ‘gets it.’ That’s why I believe that we’ll play well and have the right intensity. We’ll be ready to go for the rest of the games."