Kristian Huselius is seeing a lot of change in Columbus lately. There's the transformation the team itself has made, from being a perennial member of the Western Conference's lower tier to a legitimate playoff contender.
There's also the change at Nationwide Arena. Much has been made about the palpable buzz inside the CBJ barn the past couple of months. But when a guy in the know refers to the atmosphere as if it were "like Canada," it's says something.
"I knew this organization was going in the right direction and I wanted to be a part of this team making the playoffs for the first time." - Kristian Huselius
"I played here against Columbus a lot of times," Huselius says. "They had some good fans but it wasn't always packed. And at the beginning of the season, it was okay. They were pretty good fans.
"But now, when they see we have a chance to make the playoffs, it's so loud. You can tell that they're excited and so are we. "It's a great feeling to be out there playing.”
The success the franchise has been able to achieve in this second half of this NHL season has to be an affirmation to Huselius that he made the right choice when he signed here last summer. The Jackets needed more skill and the 30-year-old winger from Osterhaninge, Sweden has provided just that.
"I knew this organization was going in the right direction and I wanted to be a part of this team making the playoffs for the first time," says Huselius.
The talented Swede has been a terrific partner with Columbus captain Rick Nash.
Huselius, who sits second behind Nash in team scoring with 20 goals and 30 assists in 68 games, knows what it's like to be paired with elite level talent. He had his best years in his previous stop with Calgary thanks to the chemistry he built with Flames' captain Jarome Iginla. Huselius says it's been great playing with Nash, a star he refers to as "the total package."
"He can do everything out there," Huselius says of number 61. "The first couple months, it took a while to adjust, to find each other. But now, it seems like we know what's going on when we have the puck. It's just going to get better and better.
"It's not that easy to just put a line together and think it's going to work right away. It takes time."
The combination, along with promoted center Manny Malhotra, have done a number on opposing lines this season, at both ends of the rink. Huselius himself has been playing solid two-way hockey. Known as one of the more gifted players around the NHL, he has earned his nickname "Juice" by giving a consistent effort every time he hits the ice.
Head coach Ken Hitchcock says he likes Huselius' intelligence. Hitch would probably prefer that he fire the puck a little more but the coach is okay with the fact that Huselius looks to make a play first.
"I find with those type of players, as soon as you tell them to shoot, they're going to pass," says Hitchcock. "So I just leave them alone. As long as he competes hard and does the right things with the puck when he's being checked, that's all that matters to me. He's done that all year.
"There have not been many nights that he hasn't competed hard and for a skilled guy to compete like he does in a pretty intense conference is a good feeling."
Huselius' talent level – ie: the undressing of Cristobal Huet on a breakaway in Chicago recently – has been a treat to watch. His ability to deal the puck in the offensive zone keeps defenders in a panic. And who knows how many goals he would have if not for the numerous times he's hit iron, a point constantly made by the Jackets' broadcasters.
He's the proverbial skilled Swede, following in a long line of players from his country, some of whom were pioneers in bringing European talent to North America. Huselius is well aware of those countrymen that came before him. Like many kids growing up in Sweden, he admired the greats like Toronto defenseman Borje Salming (now an underwear mogul in the homeland), Calgary's Haakan Loob and former Oiler Kent Nilsson.
"A lot of Swedish players are thankful that those guys came over a long time ago and set the tone," says Huselius, who developed his game with four seasons in the Swedish Elite League after being drafted 47th overall by Florida in 1997. "That was huge for us."
Now an NHL veteran, Huselius is the one trying to set an example for his young, hungry teammates. He has been just what Columbus needed this season – a hard working guy with loads of ability that has helped bring out the best in both Nash and the top unit.
Coming to the Midwest (a.k.a. Canada South) was a good decision for Huselius.
"We've showed a lot of character in this locker room," he says. "We've had a lot of injuries all year and guys have stepped up when we needed them to.
"It seems like we have just grown together and gotten better every day."