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Blue Jackets hope experience pays off in postseason

Columbus can draw on previous lessons in third straight playoff trip

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

A look at the coaching record of John Tortorella leads credence to the theory that there is such a thing as a team learning how to win in the postseason. 

He took over a below-.500 Tampa Bay Lightning team mid-season in 2001, took it to the playoffs two years later and had a Stanley Cup champion in 2004. 

When Tortorella moved on to the New York Rangers, none of his first three teams made it out of the first round before the 2012 squad went all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals before falling just short of beating New Jersey to win the conference.  

Even teams like the Crosby/Malkin Pittsburgh Penguins and Kane/Toews Chicago Blackhawks had some stumbles before they became weaponized enough to make it all the way to where they wanted to go. 

So the question becomes: When will be the Columbus Blue Jackets' time to make that leap? 

Of course, this could be the year, and if it is, it will be quite impressive. The Blue Jackets are back in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the third year in a row, and after losing to the last two Cup champions in the first round, this year the reward is a Tampa Bay Lightning team that earned the fourth-most points in NHL history. 

But if there's one thing you can say about this Blue Jackets team, it's more prepared than ever for this task.  

"For sure," said defenseman Zach Werenski, who is just 21 but will be in his third playoff series. "I think the last two years, we were pretty young. We are still young, but even our young guys -- myself included, (Markus Nutivaara, Oliver Bjorkstrand), Pierre-Luc (Dubois), we have more experience now. We know what's at stake. We come out here, we have fun, the locker room is loose right now. I think that's the best way to approach the games. We are just out there having fun. That's the best part about it."  

Tortorella talks often about how experiencing different situations can help a team and, in this case, a franchise grow, and he's worked to elevate the Blue Jackets into a team that expects to be playing and winning meaningful hockey games at this time of year.  

While the Blue Jackets couldn't keep pace with the Penguins two years ago, last year proved to be a marked step forward as Columbus went on the road and won the first two games in Washington in overtime. The Jackets then had a great chance to win Game 3 at home but hit a number of posts in the third period and overtime of an eventual double-OT loss. Columbus also lost Game 5 at Washington in overtime on the way to the 4-2 series setback. 

The losses have been painful, but they also have been instructive for a core group that seems building for something.  

"We're certainly not going in and saying we know how to do this because we have not won a series, but to me, it's a tremendous opportunity to try to find out," Tortorella said. "From at least the time I've been here from a couple of failures in the other postseasons, you can learn from those situations and try to get better." 

Since the Stanley Cup Playoffs are all about beards, you could say most of the other teams in the league are relative graybeards compared to this team. The Blue Jackets' average player age of 25 years, 24 days on Opening Day was the youngest in the league.  

Since then, the Jackets have added experience in the form of 28-year-old forward Matt Duchene, 27-year-old forward Ryan Dzingel and veteran 32-year-old defenseman Adam McQuaid -- the only Stanley Cup winner on the active roster -- but the Jackets are still a young squad.  

 Only four members of the active roster -- McQuaid, captain Nick Foligno, Brandon Dubinsky and Sergei Bobrovsky -- are 30 or older, and such key contributors as newly called-up 19-year-old forward Alexandre Texier, 20-year-old Pierre-Luc Dubois, 21-year-old Werenski, 23-year-old Oliver Bjorkstrand, and 24-year-olds Seth Jones, Josh Anderson and Markus Nutivaara are key contributors.  

The NHL is getting younger and faster these days, but the Jackets do have more key contributors who are still experimenting with learning how to grow playoff beards than the Lightning, a slightly more veteran team even despite the presence of standout 22-year-old center Brayden Point and 25-year-old superstar Nikita Kucherov.  

This particular Tampa Bay group has gone through a path of ups and downs in the playoffs, surging all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2014-15 and reaching the conference finals in four of the last eight years, but in three of the other four years, they didn't even qualify for the postseason. 

That suggests its not quite a straight line, but there also is some losing that comes before winning.  

"It's our third time with a lot of these guys that we have here, and we're still a fairly inexperienced group in the playoffs," Tortorella said. "We go into Washington and win a couple, and then we're done. We certainly have some lessons we can learn from that." 

Dubois, who enters the postseason as likely the team's No. 1 center despite his youth, hopes the team has learned from the Washington series.  

"Last year was my first time in the playoffs," he said. "I've been in juniors, but it's a completely different step in your career. I remember last year when we were up 2-0, you can be happy about winning, but going up 2-0, going up 3-0 means really nothing at the end of the day. You have to win four games. You have to win 16 to win the Cup. Even if you're halfway there, if you have eight wins or 12 wins, you haven't accomplished anything." 

The key, it appears, is to never stop learning. At some point, that magical mix comes together, but experience certainly appears to be a part of it.  

"I think any time you go through a career and you go through different experiences, you're going to learn from them," Bjorkstrand said. "Every year, I think for anybody in here, the more experienced you get, that could be for guys like Foligno, too, you learn something. You learn something from each series.  

"Hopefully this is my third year and I'm still learning things, but I learned from the other years and hopefully each of us can use that."  

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