The Columbus Blue Jackets are back in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in five seasons. They clinched the berth Wednesday night with a 3-1 win against the Dallas Stars.
It's been a long haul to get to this point, particularly after losing out on a tiebreaker to the Minnesota Wild for the eighth seed in the Western Conference at the close of the 2012-13 regular season. But the Blue Jackets are a better team this season with depth at forward and a world-class goalie itching to make his mark in the postseason.
In addition, there are several young players in significant roles this season under third-year coach Todd Richards, including forwards Ryan Johansen and Boone Jenner and defenseman Ryan Murray.
If the regular-season home finale Tuesday night was any indication, Nationwide Arena will be rocking when the team returns to Columbus to open the playoffs. It was a memorable night too, when Johansen continued his torrid offensive pace with an unbelievable wrist shot to defeat the Phoenix Coyotes in overtime.
The Blue Jackets have developed into the type of team general manager Jarmo Kekalainen and president of hockey operations John Davidson envisioned in the preseason, one that is disciplined, relatively solid in all areas of the ice and committed to winning.
Here are five reasons why the Blue Jackets will be playing beyond the regular season for the second time in franchise history:
1. Depth at forward
The power surge throughout the Columbus lineup was evident this season; seven players finished with 15 or more goals. In the only other playoff season for the Blue Jackets, in 2008-09, they had three 15-plus goal-scorers in the regular season.
Johansen, Jenner, Artem Anisimov, Cam Atkinson, Nick Foligno, RJ Umberger and Brandon Dubinsky all had at least 15 goals in 2013-14. The Blue Jackets even traded veteran offensive sniper Marian Gaborik to the Los Angeles Kings at the NHL Trade Deadline after he appeared in only 22 games due to a collarbone injury, and they still established a team record for goals in a season. Columbus has 221 goals after the win in Dallas, one more than the previous record, set in 2008-09, the last time they made the playoffs.
At a time when scoring is at a premium as teams gun for playoff positioning, the Blue Jackets found a way to spread the wealth, and that balance proved important down the stretch.
2. Let's get physical
Richards not only insisted the Blue Jackets play fast, get in on the forecheck and play responsibly, but he also wanted to play hard in every zone.
That message was heard loud and clear. Columbus set a franchise record with more than 2,500 hits this season.
Leading the hit parade was its all-purpose performer, Dubinsky, followed by Derek MacKenzie, Foligno and Jenner, each of whom finished with 200-plus hits. The Blue Jackets finished 12th with 1,188 hits in 2012-13 and eighth with 2,018 in 2011-12.
The Blue Jackets were among the League leaders in hits on the road in setting a franchise record for victories away from Nationwide Arena this season.
3. Young and experienced
The Blue Jackets couldn't wait to give Murray, their prized first-round draft choice from 2012, a shot along the blue line this season after he missed most of 2012-13 with a dislocated shoulder. Murray seized the opportunity and has gained Richards' full confidence.
Richards' decision to pair Murray, 20, with veteran James Wisniewski, 30, has done wonders for each player. Wisniewski, who averages more than 22 minutes a game, has established a Columbus record for most points by a defenseman in a season. Murray, who is averaging more than 19 minutes, is among the NHL rookie leaders in blocked shots and power-play points.
So long as each player is healthy, Richards will look to keep the duo intact during the playoffs.
4. What about 'Bob'?
Goalie Sergei Bobrovsky followed up his Vezina Trophy-winning 2012-13 season by reaching career highs in games played, minutes, victories and shutouts.
Bobrovsky continues to be great when Columbus needs him to be and is a calming presence for the players, particularly when the team needs to gain some composure playing on the road. He had a disappointing finish representing his native Russia at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, but was unfazed by that upon his return to the Blue Jackets for the stretch run of the NHL season.
Bobrovsky will need to prove himself early. In seven career playoff games with the Philadelphia Flyers, Bobrovsky had a 4.04 goals-against average and .848 save percentage.
5. A 'Boone' in confidence
When the Blue Jackets drafted Jenner in the second round (No. 37) in 2011, they could have only hoped for the impact he has had in his first NHL season.
Jenner, who has been compared to a young Mike Richards or Milan Lucic, has provided a little bit of everything and then some for the Blue Jackets.
"One thing that hasn't changed in his game from Day One is how hard he works," Todd Richards told the National Post. "If you watch him shift in and shift out, his legs are always moving. There's no rest. There's no glide in his game. And he's starting to figure out how to have success."
In addition to ranking among the Columbus leaders in hits, steals, game-winning goals, points and plus-minus rating, his energy and enthusiasm leave teammates even more motivated. Jenner is also a fan favorite.
"Honestly, every time we dump the puck in, he's the first one in on the forecheck trying to kill someone," Johansen said.
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter: @mikemorrealeNHL
Author: Mike G. Morreale | NHL.com Staff Writer