The postseason officially begins in April. Unofficially, the desperate brand of hockey required to advance in the spring has been going on for a long time already. This eighth edition of the Columbus Blue Jackets is finally getting a taste of what it's like to play in a late-season pressure cooker.
"They're all playoff games right now," says R.J. Umberger, a man who understands what's required in elimination hockey from his tenure in Philadelphia. "You have to man up this time of year."
"We're in an 18-hole playoff and we don't have time to feel sorry for ourselves and allow what we feel to affect our next shot." - Center Michael Peca
One of the most challenging aspects of being in a tight playoff race this late in the season, and especially when the actual postseason games begin, is dealing with the huge swings of emotion that come from winning and losing. Everything is amplified. A win now feels better than it did in November.
Unfortunately, the opposite is also true.
"Absolutely," Umberger said bluntly after Columbus went down 4-0 to a sharp looking Detroit team. "It stings big time when you lose, especially when you go out and don’t give your best effort."
With 12 critical games left in the season, the Blue Jackets have put themselves in a good position to secure an invitation to the dance. But how they deal with the highs and lows in this final stretch will play a role in determining their fate come early April.
Michael Peca, a veteran of two Stanley Cup Finals, says that players have to really control their feelings when competition heats up. There's no time for dwelling on the negative, or the positive for that matter.
"The greatest sport for analogy is golf," says Peca. "We're on to the next hole. We're in an 18-hole playoff and we don't have time to feel sorry for ourselves and allow what we feel to affect our next shot, which is in essence, our next game Wednesday.
"We've got to take the negative energy, and even if it was a big win, we take the positive energy, and put it aside and really focus on the things we need to improve on."
Prior to Detroit's win on Sunday, the Jackets willed their way to four consecutive wins against the best in the NHL. And they did it in dramatic fashion. A blowout W over Detroit; a clinical dissection of the Bruins; a heart-stopping shootout victory over Sidney Crosby's Penguins; and a bit of retribution for Chicago with a road win following the Hawks' recent domination of the CBJ.
Great stuff to watch but the physical and mental toll was apparent against a near-perfect Red Wings team.
"Fifth in eight nights, with a lot of emotional games," head coach Ken Hitchcock said Sunday. "We played today like there was nothing left. We tried. Guys tried."
The people outside Nationwide Arena, however, were willing to give the Jackets the benefit of the doubt Sunday.
Lynn Gase, a fan from Ostrander, has been supporting the club since "day one." Wearing her David Vyborny jersey, with binoculars hanging from her neck, she definitely felt the disappointment of Sunday's loss. But Gase was more focused on the highs she felt during the week when Columbus went on that great four-game run, including two stirring wins at home in front of monster crowds that were enjoying that amplified sensation this time of year brings.
"Beating Boston and Pittsburgh, that was a lot of fun," she says with a big smile. "They just put so much in."
"We're knocking on 80 points in March. When can we say we've ever been this close to Detroit this late?"
That's a new feeling for fans. And for many of the veteran Columbus players who haven't tasted the late season/playoff success. According to Peca, whatever team deals with the emotional swings better on a game-to-game basis, as well as within individual games themselves, will be the ones standing late.
"The playoffs are like a microcosm of what the season is," he says. "This is like the playoffs in the sense that you are going to deal with emotional ups and downs.
"This will be a good lesson for us."
"This is a measuring stick for what it's going to be like down the stretch," he says, "and you use those things to help you out."
So buckle up. It only gets more emotional from here.