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Blue Jackets have become stronger through adversity of season

Team believes battling mentality will help it during postseason

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider /

John Tortorella has been doing this a long time. 

He has 18 years of NHL head coaching behind him, and that doesn't include experience as an NHL assistant or his years leading such teams as the Virginia Lancers and New Haven Nighthawks in the minors. 

Every season has its challenges -- that's why an NHL head coach makes the big bucks, after all -- but for Tortorella, this season stands out. 

Why is that? Just for the adversity Columbus has fought through repeatedly to get back to its goal of returning to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. 

"I don't remember all of the years, but it has been one of the craziest years for me, especially with all of the stuff we have had to deal with around us in the room," he said. "And just the ups and downs as far as our play -- we struggled at home, in certain big games we didn't show. 

"A lot of different things happened this year, but when push came to shove at the end of the year, guys stepped up and found a way to get in there." 

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When it comes to things that have happened away from the ice, two situations jump out -- the months-long uncertainty surrounding stars Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky and the leaves of absence that captain Nick Foligno has had to take twice this year. 

Foligno certainly wouldn't want a spotlight on what he's had to go through, but the Masterton Trophy nominee twice had to leave the team for four-game stretches, first when his 5-year-old daughter had heart surgery in late December and then in March when his 22-month-old son was battling pneumonia. Not having a captain around can be tough, especially one who seems as integral to the glue of the team as Foligno, who has been a rock in the times of uncertainty facing the team. 

And there was to be no avoiding the elephant in the room when it came to Panarin and Bobrovsky this season, as the hockey world looked on with rapt attention as the two entered the season in the final year of their contracts.  

Many in the game thought Columbus had to trade at least one and perhaps both to recoup assets should both decide to leave in free agency at the end of the year. The rumors around the team prompted an early-season meeting that set the tone for how the team would handle what was to come, and Tortorella called the honesty with which the team handled everything as one of his favorite parts of the year. 

Of course, both stayed and have been key pieces of the team, and they were bolstered by four more additions at the trade deadline.

"Listen, there's been (crap) running around our team all year long, right from the get-go as far as guys leaving -- you know the story," Tortorella said after the win Friday night that clinched the playoff berth. "There's been a lot of things that have happened within that room.  

"I think the team has held together strong. I think it's been a very honest locker room when things have come up, we aired it out right away so it doesn't sit in the room. I'm proud of them." 

Through it all, Columbus not only is returning to the postseason for a franchise-best third straight season, the team won 47 games, the second-most in franchise history. 

In addition to all that happened off the ice, the Jackets had their fair share of fits and starts on it. There was a start that didn't include anything more than a two-game losing streak until January, but there was no extended winning streak, either, to push the team to the top of the Metropolitan Division. Columbus finally did get there in mid-January, but a five-game losing skid followed. 

From there, the Jackets were in a playoff dogfight before and after the trade deadline, with ups and downs following until the team won seven of its last eight games to clinch the playoff berth. 

"It's been a hectic season, I think, not just on the ice but off of it with some of the things we've had to go through," defenseman Seth Jones said. "I think we're a closer team because of it. I think it's made us tighter. We stayed through it pretty well." 

Now comes the ultimate test of a team, and the Jackets got a little more adversity sent to them in the form of the Tampa Bay Lightning, a first-round foe that tied the NHL wins record this year with 62 in the regular season. The team has been called one of the best assemblages of NHL talent in the past couple decades, and there's little arguing the Lightning had the most successful regular season of any team in the past 20 years, so Columbus will need to draw on every bit of growth that's occurred over the past few months to move on to the second round. 

Of course, captain Nick Foligno thinks the Jackets can do just that. 

"We are a team that feels really confident now that we've gotten in with everything we've faced and gone through," Foligno said. "We've grown as a team together. I think you're just seeing this become more of a team. We're excited about putting that to use in the playoffs." 

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