The Jackets took to the ice at Nationwide Arena Tuesday for an upbeat and uptempo practice that transmitted a feeling of intensity and focus throughout the building.
The team is headed to Pittsburgh later today to begin the opening series of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs against the defending champion Penguins. Puck drop for game one is 7:30 p.m. Wednesday night.
19-year-old Zach Werenski was back on the ice with the Jackets after having missed the last four games due to an upper body injury. Werenski has been a huge part of the Jackets' success this season, eating up top-pairing minutes, quarterbacking the power play and playing the aggressive style of game that head coach John Tortorella has demanded of his team.
Along the way, Werenski set franchise records for points and assists by a Blue Jackets rookie (11-36-47). He also owns the record for most goals by a rookie defenseman.
Having him back on the ice is a huge asset for the Jackets heading into the post-season, but Tortorella is also optimistic that the week away from the ice gave the Michigan native some rest as he continues the longest season he's played in his career.
"I think the rest may help him," Tortorella said. "You saw how he played after the five day break. Sometimes things happen for a reason. This is a real positive for us in that the games that he missed didn't have a whole bunch of importance as far as us fighting to get in or whatever it may be. It gave him a chance to rest. It's a two-fold thing. He gives us some juice, and obviously some minutes that we missed, but also gives him some rest during the time he was out.
Video: Torts on the team's readiness for the playoffs
Youth is an asset not a weakness.
The Jackets have been trumpeted as one of the youngest teams in the league all season long. But what this team is quick to remind you is that those players who are about to play in their first NHL post-season game, don't just bring skill and excitement, they bring a culture of winning.
Rookies Werenski, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Josh Anderson, and Lukas Sedlak all came to Columbus this year as Calder Cup Champions.
"You win a championship, no matter what league you're in, that's a championship," Tortorella said. "You've gone through a lot of different things as a group. For me, it's not about only some of the people and the skill brought in through the minor league team, it's also about the fact that they won. They don't have to take a back seat to anybody in understanding what it takes to win. They went through four rounds there. That's a tremendous training ground and they succeeded while doing it."
Video: Dubi on playing tough against Pittsburgh
Of course there's winning but this is the NHL. Won't the demands be different? Brandon Dubinsky praised the maturity of the young players on this team and what they've brought to the club.
"These guys are young but so mature and they handle themselves so well," Dubinsky said. You don't have to tell them too much. That's encouraging and it speaks to their maturity which translates to their ability to jump in and be a big piece to this puzzle."
There are other young players on this Jackets team who haven't yet played in an NHL playoff game. Joonas Korpisalo also joined the Jackets from Cleveland and Markus Nutivaara just completed his first season of hockey in North America. They don't know what Game One will feel like and Tortorella feels good about that.
"I think it's an advantage, when you have that type of youth," Tortorella said. "I think the excitement and adrenaline overrides everything as far as nerves. Our whole mindset here is we're not over coaching. We're not changing a lot as far as how we prepare. I want the team to have fun and I think they need to understand that. This isn't about pressure, the pressure is getting in. I want them to go out there and have fun."
- Lukas Sedlak and Ryan Murray remain sidelined with injury. Tortorella said he considers both players day-to-day.
- Brandon Dubinsky on his history playing against Penguins captain, and 2017 Rocket Richard winner, Sidney Crosby: "I just enjoy trying to beat Pittsburgh. If playing against him is part of it, then I'll do it. I haven't spoken to Torts about what my role is going to be as far as the series goes so whatever it is, I'll do the best I can."
- Whether this is a full-blown rivalry or one slowly building, the word was mentioned more than a few times in post-practice interviews. "This is probably the biggest rivalry that the Blue Jackets have had over the years," Scott Hartnell said. "There's something building here."