The NHL standings looked a little different Thursday morning. That "x" beside Columbus, well, that's a good thing.
The Blue Jackets clinched their first ever postseason berth Wednesday and it was appropriate that it happened in Chicago. The Blackhawks, along with the St. Louis Blues, Nashville Predators and the defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings have been the main obstacles in the Jackets' long journey to the playoffs. The Western Conference race has been crowded with all five teams from the NHL’s toughest division.
Grand Central Station, if you will.
"It seems like it went from the worst division to the best," captain Rick Nash says of the Central. "It's a tough division to play in.
"We have had to step up our game against those teams."
A while back, Jackets' head coach Ken Hitchcock suggested his team's division record was going to be the determining factor in earning an invite to the big dance.
"We wanted to be over .500 in our division," Hitchcock said the day before Columbus secured the two historic points in Chicago. "That was the goal."
Mission accomplished. The win improved Columbus' division record to 10-9-4 overall (with one game left tonight at St. Louis) and 5-4-2 in the past 11 games of the crucial stretch drive. Columbus successfully navigated its way through a season-long storm in the Central, a division that still has all five teams fighting for a spot in the playoffs, which would be a league first of it happened.
The Preds, a solid 39-33-8 through 80 games, are actually the cellar dwellers. St. Louis went on a torrid pace the second half of the season to get in the race, while the Red Wings and Blackhawks have looked dominant at times in their 100-point-plus campaigns. Only the East's Atlantic Division, with the New Jersey Devils, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins is comparable in depth, though the presence of the NHL's worst team, the New York Islanders, takes some luster off of that group.
"That's what the league has been striving for, equality between teams," says Manny Malhotra. "The Central Division is the personification of that. Chicago revamped their lineup in the summer time. We've been building something really good here, bringing in some great additions. Nashville's been there for a couple of years and obviously, Detroit's a perennial power.
"For everybody to put it together at the same time is pretty freaky."
The logjam in this division was the perfect preparation for the young Jackets. The games against their Central foes simulated two important qualities of playoff hockey – the desperation and the disdain. Sunday's shootout thriller in Nationwide Arena, against a Chicago team they have learned to hate, was a prime example. Fans could feel the tension in the pit of their stomachs. Players felt it, too.
"The division games have been really intense and it's made it a lot of fun," says Steve Mason, no stranger to the big stage after leading Canada to a gold medal at the World Junior Championship in 2008. "We've been in a playoff atmosphere for the last two months.
"That benefits us in the long run. We’ve played a lot of big games already."
"We've seen this from December on, where this entire division's been making a push at it," says Malhotra. "We knew it was going to come down to the last few games. "These games have meant a lot to us."
Malhotra says the Jackets have been approaching the division games, particularly these recent back-to-backs, as mini playoff series themselves.
"It's a one-night affair and you need to take care of business," says Malhotra.
The simulation is over. The real postseason is just days away. And you can't help but think that the grind Columbus experienced in the league's hardest division has prepared them well for the battles ahead.