As we hit the final 15 games of the season, races across the NHL are heating up as teams scramble to earn berths in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. One team, however, is starting to make a lot of noise in the Eastern Conference and it just might surprise you who.
GETTING ON THE 'BUS
Suddenly, the Columbus Blue Jackets have pulled themselves into the top three in the Metropolitan Division and are eyeing the second playoff berth in franchise history. The Jackets are 6-1-1 this month and are showing little sign of slowing down. If you want a reason as to why this team is competing now, you have to begin with goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, who was named the NHL's First Star of the Week on Monday. Bobrovsky started everything last season when he came to Columbus and won the Vezina Trophy. It got the players thinking they might actually be a pretty good team with a chance. He's not the only reason though.
This is a team that has drafted pretty well over the last few seasons, and now younger players like Ryan Johansen and Ryan Murray are starting to believe in themselves and come of age at the same time. General manager Jarmo Kekalainen also has made some pretty good signings, like Nathan Horton this past summer, and the team has gotten valuable players back in trades, like Artem Anisimov and Brandon Dubinsky.
What you're seeing right now is not just Bobrovsky stealing games and lifting the team, though he is having another tremendous season. This is the accumulation of all the work Columbus has done over the last few seasons starting to come together. The Blue Jackets are being built the right way. And now in addition to Bobrovsky they've found some great young players that can put the puck in the net. The special teams are good and 5-on-5 they're solid. This is a real team that can beat you in a lot of ways. If the Jackets were in a bigger market you'd be hearing much more about them.
THE STATE OF OHIO
That isn't to say of course that Columbus isn't a great market. I have a lot of experience with the Ohio hockey scene and I don't think Ohio as a state gets the respect it should. There's been hockey in Cleveland for years and once upon a time the city was home to the Cleveland Barons. Cincinnati, where I played for a few seasons with the Cincinnati Stingers of the World Hockey Association, also is a great hockey town. When I was with the Stingers we would draw 10,000 to 11,000 on nights the NHL was drawing 5,000 to 6,000.
Columbus, with Ohio State University's athletic programs, is not just a great sports town but a great hockey town. How many cities in the United States do you know with two 18,000-seat hockey arenas? Not too many, but Columbus is one of them. Ohio State isn't the only great college program in the state, either. Bowling Green has a strong program and Miami of Ohio in Oxford has been one of the best hockey programs in the country in recent seasons.
There are tons of young players coming out of Ohio. There's a real passion for the sport there and even when the Blue Jackets struggled in their early years they still drew pretty well. You would have 12,000 to 14,000 fans showing up every night before the team was any good. And then you look at what the place was like when the Blue Jackets made the playoffs a few seasons ago; the atmosphere at Nationwide Arena was unbelievable. If Columbus can harness this success and really sustain it for the long term, you easily could see this becoming one of the best markets, and toughest places to visit, in the League.
On Saturday the Ottawa Senators became the first team in NHL history to lose after having a three-goal lead with less than five minutes when they went from up 4-1 to losing 5-4 in overtime against the Montreal Canadiens. That is the kind of devastating collapse that can stick with you and have a profound effect on your season. I was in a situation as a coach in the American Hockey League where we were two goals up with 1:21 left and the other team tied it before scoring early in overtime to win the game. My team totally was flustered. It was crazy. I had never seen a team look so good and then a minute and 21 seconds later look so bad.
It was very similar to what happened in the playoffs last season with the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs in Game 7 of their first-round series. After the Bruins came back to tie the game you knew Toronto was done before the game even ended.
This is the kind of loss that will change a team. Certainly it can boost Montreal, but the Habs also have to be thinking afterward that they're one of the luckiest teams in the League to get two points from a game like that. Ottawa, on the other hand, this could haunt them for a while, or even the rest of the season. When you're in the room afterward and you look at each other, you'll think, "Are we really that bad? Are we that weak mentally that we fold like a deck chair?"
This is the kind of loss you won't get over in 10 minutes. It affects you, and you can see that Ottawa still didn't look normal when it lost a day later to the Colorado Avalanche. I don't really see the Senators making the playoffs because there are too many better teams in front of them, but when you miss the postseason there are games you look back on. That loss Saturday will be one of those.