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Commentary: Jackets' wild ride crescendos in frantic finish

by Rob Mixer / Columbus Blue Jackets

One of the most tired cliches used in sports is that of a team playing with a "chip on its shoulder."

Sure, we get what it means (by mere virtue of hearing it repeated so often) but rarely do we see it entrenched in the identity of a team - but quite frankly, these Blue Jackets have played with a figurative glacier on their shoulder.

I often think back to a couple of months ago when the Blue Jackets were a frustrated group, sitting in last place with a 5-12-2 record and on the wrong side of too many one-goal decisions. The few mistakes they made found a way into the back of their net, the margin for error was microscopic and results were few and far between.

But then something changed, something ignited them and galvanized them. And along the way, there are certain moments that stand out as defining junctures.

A week after Jarmo Kekalainen took over as GM, Vinny Prospal scored one of the season's most memorable goals in the final 30 seconds at Joe Louis Arena, giving the Blue Jackets their first win in four games. Their confidence began to swell, and a couple of weeks later, they swept a four-game home stand at Nationwide Arena and began a 12-game points streak that was the beginning of this magical run they're on.

Not long after that it was Jack Johnson, sitting in his locker stall answering questions after one of those wins and being asked by a reporter if he knew this team "wasn't supposed to be winning games" in such a fashion.

"I don't really care what the experts think," he said with a matter-of-fact tone.

As the Blue Jackets embark on their most exciting and anticipated week in quite some time, it's been made pretty clear that they aren't particularly interested in following along with some predetermined fate. They hold a 17-5-5 record in their last 27 games and won four of five games on a recently-completed road trip that encompassed nine days, five games and three time zones in some of the most hostile buildings in the NHL.

It's become less about proving others wrong and more about proving themselves right.

Not many eyebrows were raised around the NHL back in January when the players and coaches stated their intention to qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs. But who cares, really? This is now a team that, despite being picked 30th by nearly every major media outlet, holds a three-point edge on eighth place in the Western Conference standings with one week to go.

They are neither guaranteed a playoff spot nor on the cusp of clinching one, setting the stage for emotional tilt-a-whirl over the next five days. The untenable and unpredictable nature of the playoff picture means it's time for "playoff math," everyone's favorite equation that's borderline infuriating to configure but thrilling to follow.

It also means cheering for the Los Angeles Kings is temporarily acceptable. But that's where it stops.

These are exciting times and this coming week will be the culmination of a 48-game journey that will begin and end in a flash; we'll know by sunrise on Sunday where the Blue Jackets stand, if they're in/out and where they'll be headed next.

On the flip side of exciting is an agonizing three-day stretch before the Jackets have a chance to get on the ice again, and boy, what a game we're set up for in Dallas.

Could that game be an opportunity for the Blue Jackets to clinch a playoff spot? It's entirely possible, but it bears repeating that Columbus will need some friendly assistance en route. It's high time to watch the Stars' every move, how the Red Wings play down the stretch, and if the Jackets can take care of their own business with two games left on their regular-season plate.

Regardless of how the next week plays out, this group has taken its passionate and loyal fans on quite a ride these past three months. And part of what makes sports so special is that instead of asking "are we there yet?", Blue Jackets fans don't want this trip to end.

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