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The Columbus Blue Jackets have never reached the postseason in their five-year existence. Thanks to a late surge last season and some added options on offense, they feel that streak will end.
Trying to build off unprecedented success, the Blue Jackets open their season against the Vancouver Canucks (1-0-0) at Nationwide Arena on Friday night.
The Blue Jackets' improved play started Jan. 24 with a 6-5 win over Vancouver. That contest began a franchise record five-game winning streak, which included shootout wins over Calgary and Edmonton. Less than two months later, Columbus had a six-game win streak and won nine of its last 13 games.
After guiding his team to third place with a franchise-best 74 points in a top-heavy Central Division, Columbus head coach Gerard Gallant wants to see improvement.
"I fully expect us to play with everybody and be in contention in the Western Conference," said Gallant as he enters his second full season behind the bench. "I look at my team and there shouldn't be any excuses."
For the Blue Jackets to improve, they will need to avoid injuries that contributed to them losing 22 of their first 31 games last year.
After less than 9 minutes of ice time in the season opener, high-scoring left wing Rick Nash aggravated an ankle injury suffered in training camp and missed 11 games. He also missed 17 games in November and December with a sprained knee. Nash had a team-high 31 goals in just 54 games.
Center and sixth overall draft pick in 2005, Gilbert Brule, suffered a broken sternum in the home opener last season. He returned in late November for five games before a broken leg sidelined him for six more weeks.
Columbus made a major offseason trade, sending goaltender Marc Denis to Tampa Bay for left wing Fredrik Modin and goalie Fredrik Norrena.
Modin tallied 31 goals for the Lightning last season, including a career-high 12 on the power play. Norrena will back up new starter Pascal LeClaire.
Center Anson Carter, who recorded a career-high 33 goals with the Canucks last season, signed a one-year deal with Columbus on Sept. 13. In his only season with Vancouver, Carter also set career bests with 15 power-play goals and seven game-winners.
"Anybody can win the Stanley Cup," he said. "If you have a great run coming down the stretch, you have to be lucky with injuries and have to play together as a five-man unit out there. Having said that, I don't see why we don't have the ability to make the playoffs."
Veteran forward and future Hall of Famer Sergei Fedorov, who had 12 goals for Columbus after being acquired early last season from Anaheim, will miss the start of the season with an injured shoulder.
Gallant said his team is better prepared than in the past to deal with injuries.
"We're at the stage now where if we get an injury or two, we've got enough depth to take over and still be very competitive every night," Gallant said.
The Blue Jackets dropped three of four last season to the Canucks, but have won three of the last five meetings in Columbus.
Vancouver's most notable offseason acquisition made a successful debut on Thursday as Roberto Luongo made 27 saves in a 3-1 victory over Detroit.
"I was not really focusing on who was playing on the other side," he said. "I was concentrating on playing my first game for my new team."
Luongo has seen his win total rise in each of his six years in the league, including a career-best 35 last season with Florida.
"He never looked like he was out of place," said Canucks veteran Trevor Linden said of Luongo, acquired from the Panthers for Todd Bertuzzi. "For sure, he always looked like he was in position."
Both of Luongo's career wins over Columbus have come via shutout.
Sami Salo had a goal and an assist, and Linden and Markus Naslund also scored Thursday. Naslund has 16 goals in just 19 career games versus the Blue Jackets.