A foundation built upon hard work
Just a few short years ago, Columbus would be playing out the string at this point of the season. The refrain of "same old Blue Jackets" was heard as the fans, once again, would wait for the next year. Players would be looking forward to tee times at their favorite course and John Q. Public would start anticipating the upcoming NHL draft.
After the torrid run to the playoffs last year fell just short due to a tiebreaker, a buzz began to build around the team that did not abate through the hot summer months. The collective memories of this young team don't remember the dog days of the Blue Jackets. The focus of players wasn't on just trying to make the playoffs anymore. They have a loftier goal in mind.
Much has changed in the short 17 months since John Davidson took the reins in Columbus. Fundamental change happened as the club was not so much rebuilt, but refined. Playing meaningful hockey in March? That shouldn't come as a surprise with this group, as it is expected by all within the organization.
The rollercoaster ride that was this season's early months gave fans some pause. But the team righted the ship as everyone on the roster has stepped up his game. They have an identity after years of playing without one. Opposing teams have learned that they can't start their backup goalies against Columbus on a regular basis anymore. The hard work has paid dividends, as this has become a club that has shown that they don't give up.
With 15 games remaining on the schedule, the Blue Jackets are in the thick of the race for the playoffs in the ultra-tight Metro Division. They have gone from second place in the division, fell to eighth (wildcard) in the conference standings and now sit third in the Metro, all within the last 48 hours. They have games in hand on the teams below them. The buzz surrounding the team may have had an ebb and flow, but it never really abated.
It may sound cliche, but Columbus is playing each game with a playoff-like intensity. There is no coasting comfortably into a playoff position, as they aren't that good, yet. They are no longer looked at as a long shot to make the playoffs. For them, it is expected.
"It's not cliche," said Blue Jackets associate coach Craig Hartsburg. "It's reality. Especially when you're playing teams that you're trying to stay ahead of or catch. It's certainly not stressful, it's fun. This is why you play hockey and coach hockey, to be in important games. And, we have a bunch of them."
By staying within the confines of their identity, they have become a hard team to play against. At times during the season, they have strayed from that identity with predictable results.
"When we're playing 'Blue Jackets hockey,' we are hard to play against," Hartsburg said. "Whether we're playing a big, strong team like L.A. (Kings) or a skilled team, when we play 'our' game against those teams, we're hard to play against in all three zones and hard to play against for 60 minutes."
"That's what we have to be," he continued. "That's what we are."
The "brick-by-brick" mantra paved the way to their hard work identity. To a man, the players have bought in to what this team is striving to become. They are not just hopeful of playing meaningful hockey this late in the season anymore. For them, it is expected. The hard work ethos laid down from above permeates the dressing room.
"That's what we've been striving to build here for the last two years," said Hartsburg. "We see it. We just want to make sure that it's there every night. We want to be that sixty-minute, two-hundred-foot, hard-working team that is relentless."
Indeed, that identity wasn't there every night, especially early in the season. Chalk that up to the youth of the team. But, they've gained valuable experience over the course of the 67 games they've played to this point. There are veteran players sprinkled in among the youth to help show them the way.
As these young players grow and gain the experience of playing the game at its highest level, they strive to transform this club into a perennial playoff team. There is an excitement surrounding these young men about what they can become with some seasoning.
"They're just getting comfortable," Hartsburg said. "When young players have what Ryan (Murray), (Ryan) Johansen and (Boone) Jenner have, where they have skill but also have passion for the game, you know that there's so much growth there for them."
"We all want them to be at their 'elite' level right now. But it's almost as much fun watching them grow to get there."
Although the players are only looking ahead to the next game, as well they should, everyone else should be excited with what this team can become. It no longer looks to be a pipe dream. While a playoff run would be exhilarating to experience this year, that is not the "be-all, end-all" for this club.
The ultimate goal remains to seriously contend for the Stanley Cup year after year. That is the brass ring upon which the "brick-by-briCk" foundation was laid. Each player, each game and even each shift is a brick upon which they stand to reach the next level. These are heady times, indeed.