In less than 72 hours, the Blue Jackets officially make their return to the Stanley Cup playoffs after a five-year absence. As they embark on a second postseason appearance, one thing is noticeably clear: this is a far different team than the one that qualified in 2009.
The Blue Jackets faced a stretch of eight games in 12 days to close out the regular season with their playoff hopes on the line. Daunting as it may have appeared, they handled it extremely well and posted a record of 5-2-1 in that span, clinching a playoff spot in Game No. 80 of the regular season with a 3-1 victory in Dallas.
Not only have they been a resilient group throughout the season (the Blue Jackets have consistently been among the NHL’s hardest-hit in terms of man games lost to injury), they’ve remained focused on not just getting into the playoffs, but doing some damage this time around.
Only three players - Jared Boll, RJ Umberger and Fedor Tyutin - remain on the roster from the team’s only previous playoff berth, in which the Jackets were swept in four games by the Detroit Red Wings. It has certainly been a new beginning, one started by former GM Scott Howson and continued by John Davidson and Jarmo Kekalainen a year ago.
And for a team that’s encountered numerous obstacles and challenges, it should be no surprise that they’re ready to embrace another one beginning Wednesday night. The Blue Jackets’ first round opponent, the Pittsburgh Penguins, has had their number this season (5-0-0 in the season series) but the slate gets wiped clean this week.
“If I was Todd Richards, the first I would do is take a big piece of cardboard, write ‘0-5’ on it and burn it in the middle of the dressing room,” said Elliotte Friedman of CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada. “One of the things I’ve learned over the years is, players soon realize how different the preparation of other teams is toward you during the playoffs. In the regular season when Pittsburgh plays Columbus, maybe it’s the third game in four nights or maybe it’s a back-to-back; you pay attention to your opponents but you don’t necessarily cram for them.
“Now, what Todd can say is, ‘those five games were then. Now, we’re doing a crash course on the Pittsburgh Penguins and we’re paying full attention to them. What happened in the past doesn’t matter, and here’s how we’re going to beat them’.”
In the five meetings this season between Columbus and Pittsburgh, Sergei Bobrovsky started just one of them. He was pulled early in the second period of the first game (Nov. 1 in Pittsburgh), and since that time, Curtis McElhinney started the other four games. Bobrovsky, who battled a groin injury and an illness at different times during the season, missed three starts as a result and McElhinney started the other on the second night of a back-to-back.
Needless to say, it’s a fresh start not only for the Blue Jackets, but also their reigning Vezina Trophy winner.
“If you don’t have goaltending, you don’t have a chance,” Friedman said. “And because of the guy Columbus has in net, they’ve got a chance. I think it’s an interesting matchup because Pittsburgh used to be physical, aggressive - they still are - but you knew if you played them, you would leave with bumps and bruises. It doesn’t seem that way anymore; to me, the whole difference in this series, aside from goaltending, is whether the Blue Jackets can keep the puck in the Penguins’ zone.
“And when you’re racing for the playoffs, and you know that one loss can knock you before you even get there, those are all playoff games. If you look at Bobrovsky and what he did last year down the stretch and now this year, he’s been great.”