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Taste of playoffs leaves Blue Jackets hungry for more

Tuesday, 04.29.2014 / 5:05 PM
Craig Merz  - NHL.com Correspondent

COLUMBUS -- It was 366 days ago that the Columbus Blue Jackets players and coach Todd Richards met with the media, less than 24 hours after failing to qualify for the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs by a point.

The anguish was apparent when they spoke of the missed opportunities that cost them their second postseason appearance in franchise history.

After a rough start to the lockout-shortened season, the Blue Jackets' 19-5-4 (.750) record over the final two months was the second-best in the NHL behind the Pittsburgh Penguins (.852).

Tuesday in Nationwide Arena, it was once again an opportunity to meet with reporters at the conclusion of the season, but this time there was a mixture of disappointment and anticipation because the Blue Jackets qualified for the playoffs as the first wild card in the Eastern Conference while setting franchise records for wins and points (43-32-7, 93 points).

The youngest team in the playoffs lost the first-round best-of-7 series 4-2 to the Penguins, but not without a fight. Five of the games ended 4-3, including Game 6 on Monday, and the Blue Jackets recorded their first postseason leads and wins, taking Game 2 and Game 4 in overtime.

In the process, the Blue Jackets created a stir in the city unlike any before and left their fans eager to start the 2014-15 season.

But the players aren't as satisfied.

"The playoffs are the minimum expectations," center Mark Letestu said. "Next year's expectations have to go up. That's part of the process to becoming a good team and a Stanley Cup contender."

A common theme among the players was that the Blue Jackets need a better start next season. After vowing not to repeat their struggles out of the gate in 2012-13, the Blue Jackets were 5-10-0 in their first 15 games.

"All we had to do was be .500 to start the season and we would have been higher than a wild card," defenseman Jack Johnson said. "It's not too much to ask."

Richards, who won't be available to the media until Thursday, addressed the issue in a meeting with the players Tuesday.

"You can't just flip the switch," defenseman James Wisniewski said. "That's what happened last year. We finished strong (in 2013) and thought it would carry over. That just doesn't happen.

"Come Thanksgiving time, the teams that are in the playoffs (position) are in the playoffs. There's not much changing."

Even though the Blue Jackets made a late surge to qualify, a toll was taken.

"We were sitting at the bottom of the division in November. That's a killer," Letestu said. "It's quite taxing down the stretch to have to play playoff hockey for two months."

Blue Jackets management thinks one answer to the slow starts is to encourage more players to spend their offseason in Columbus to coordinate workouts with the strength and conditioning staff.

What the Blue Jackets don't want is a one-and-done. The upstart New York Islanders also extended the Penguins to six games last season, but did not make the playoffs this year. The Toronto Maple Leafs took the Boston Bruins to Game 7 in 2013, then also slipped.

The Blue Jackets know what that's like. They qualified for the first time in 2009 but missed out the next four seasons, including 2011-12 when they had the fewest points in the NHL.

It's been a steady rebuild since.

"We're not going to catch anybody off guard anymore," Wisniewski said. "It's not the situation like it was two years ago where teams are coming in and maybe it's a point night for you, kind of cheat and get your cookies. It's going to be hard-fought every game."

Columbus seems built for the long haul. Since Feb. 26, 2013, the Blue Jackets are 62-37-12 for the eighth-most points in the NHL.

They have several budding stars in 21-year-old center Ryan Johansen, who led Columbus with 33 goals and 63 points, and forward Boone Jenner, 20. Jenner and Johnson were the postseason goal-scoring leaders for the Blue Jackets with three apiece.

Also, defenseman Ryan Murray, 20, was steady all season despite several injuries, including a hairline fracture of his right foot sustained in Game 3.

"Some of those young guys were our best players," left wing Derek MacKenzie said. "Moving forward, we're going to need those guys to keep making progress."

The Blue Jackets also rely on veterans such as Brandon Dubinsky and Nick Foligno. And then there's goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, who didn't match his 2013 season when he won the Vezina Trophy, but nonetheless is a vital piece to the equation.

"We made the playoffs and that's great, but we finished 15th in the League," said right wing Cam Atkinson, another of the young contributors. "There's still a lot of room for improvement. We won two (playoff) games. It's a stepping stone, but we have high expectations for ourselves."

Atkinson was disappointed in his play during the postseason, but the experience gained by him and others should be invaluable.

"(The bar) was raised throughout the whole organization from the management to the players," left wing RJ Umberger said. "The key message now is keeping raising it.

"We've got to raise our game to the next level to win the Stanley Cup. We got a taste of what it's like with a full building here. It was so much fun. That's what you want to play in front of every night."

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