"I like to think we can be versatile in how we play that game. It just helps you evolve into being that team at the end of the year that's in the top eight with a chance to play in the playoffs." - Head Coach Scott Arniel
The National Hockey League season is already at the quarter pole and the Columbus Blue Jackets are knocking on the penthouse door. Not just for tops in the competitive Central Division but first overall in the entire Western Conference. That was the tempting carrot dangling in front of the CBJ as the Detroit Red Wings rolled into town Friday for the first of an important home-and-home series this weekend, one that has a mini playoff feel because of what's at stake.
Despite the tight 2-1 loss to the Wings Friday, the Jackets' 14-7-0 record is the best start in franchise history. Columbus is proving it has the personnel and the tools to succeed. The big challenge, as the organization so cruelly learned last season, is sustaining it.
"I've been in this locker room for a lot of tough times so it's nice to be winning," captain Rick Nash said after Friday's game-day skate. "At the same time, it's still early."
If there's hesitation on Nash's part to boast about what his team has done so far, that's probably a good thing. Only the here and now is important. Win the next game. But as the Ws rack up, the residual effect is that the Jackets are creating a change in culture. And if that ultimately happens, the bad memories of previous disappointments can be put aside.
As R.J. Umberger says, "winning cures everything."
"We said earlier in the year that we needed to learn how to win and when we do win, we need to learn how to deal with the success," Umberger explains. "Right now, we're getting key contributions from all members of our team, fourth line through first line, both goalies, all our D. Every night a different person steps up and that shows were not a one-dimensional team.
"We have true belief in our team. We really are a confident group this year. I think last year was a different situation. We won some games but we never really had a grasp of what kind of team we were. We lost our identity early. This year, we know exactly what we are. We play hard and contribute on the ice the way each individual should.
"We believe we're for real and that's all that matters."
The transformation from bottom dweller to Western Conference contender is still in the early stages. It began with the hiring of head coach Scott Arniel, who spoke at length with various players to gauge the state of the franchise and then laid out a plan as to how the Jackets would be better. Part of that blueprint included playing better defense (47 goals against through 20 games, the third lowest total allowed in the NHL), improving the road record (currently a near spotless 8-1-0) and being stronger in divisional play (3-2-0 entering Sunday's game with the Wings).
Check, check and check.
"I think we're seeing a little bit of a change," says Arniel. "I've really noticed our confidence."
The coach used this week's OT win on Long Island as an example of how the team is growing. After coughing up a couple of quick goals, the Jackets didn't pout. They toughed out a win, like they did in Chicago last month. That's a big turnaround from last season when the CBJ appeared to let problems mount before losing games in lopsided fashion.
"We're showing some resiliency as a group, which is a big step forward," says Arniel. "Obviously, as much as you like the good things we've done in 21 games, you look at the schedule and still see 61. Lots to play.
"But we're feeling good about ourselves. I can see it in practice, I can see it in the games. In the dressing room, the guys are upbeat and having fun, which is half the battle. If guys aren't enjoying what they're doing for a living, it makes for long games."
One of the more clear signs that a transformation is under way is that the Jackets are winning games in different ways. Arniel likes the team's ability to adapt, which was demonstrated in a recent home stand and the three-game, six-point West Coast swing. Columbus had to play physical against some bigger teams that came into Nationwide, yet when the hockey was more up tempo against the Kings, Ducks and Sharks, they showed they could successfully play that style, as well.
"I like to think we can be versatile in how we play that game," says Arniel, who avoids trying to label his squad in any way. "It just helps you evolve into being that team at the end of the year that's in the top eight with a chance to play in the playoffs."
Nash, a catalyst in the team's recent run with 10 goals in the past 10 games, says he feels as if a new era is under way in Columbus. One that was much needed. The funny thing is that the early success the Jackets have tasted in the 2010-11 season is almost going under the radar in the hockey world.
"I like being the underdog and the dark horse," says Nash, acknowledging he doesn't really care too much about what outsiders think about the Blue Jackets. "That's good for us.
"In the dressing room, we know what we are and we believe what we are."