A hockey franchise’s development resembles that of a human being. Both go through sometimes awkward and frustrating stages, but as time passes, it’s the little moments–the breakthroughs and the rites of passage–that show growth. If that’s true, the Columbus Blue Jackets are on a growth spurt.
The Jackets have experienced three of those moments recently with wins at Dallas, at Colorado and at home over Ottawa, a team they had never beaten. In five full seasons playing in the same conference with the Avalanche and the Stars, the CBJ had not beaten either of them in their own arenas.
“Obviously, when you have stats like that, they hang over a team,” forward Jason Chimera said. “It’s hard to pinpoint why you don’t win some place in particular or against someone.”
Though the Jackets may play only once or twice a year in certain places against certain teams, “it’s always nice to get that monkey off your back.”
The biggest benefit from the wins, though, isn’t necessarily about changing history but is more about “playing with more confidence,” he said.
The increased confidence might have something to do with new leadership. Ken Hitchcock, 6-3-1 since being named head coach Nov. 23, has suggested that Blue Jackets history is just that, history. Any stigmas and historical struggles mean little for the talented group Columbus has assembled this year. Beyond that philosophy, he’s brought with him a system of hockey that demands toughness and selfless play.
“You really have to buy into the system on the road because other teams, in their building, will be playing their game,” Chimera said. “And guys are buying in.”
As far as Hitchcock goes, “the guy eats, sleeps and breathes hockey,” Chimera said. “He knows different situations, and he knows when to play players and when not to play them. He’s taught us a lot.”
Until last week’s win in Denver, the Jackets were 0-9-1 in the Pepsi Center. With a commanding 3-0 shutout win, they’ll never have to take the ice there again thinking history is working against them.
“I love the excitement of playing in every arena we go to,” forward Jody Shelley said, including the ones where his team hasn’t fared so well in the past.
Columbus still has a handful of Eastern Conference teams they haven’t defeated on the road, including the Philadelphia Flyers, the New York Rangers, the New Jersey Devils, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Washington Capitals. They will get a shot at the Rangers in Madison Square Garden Feb. 24.
It’s the conference foes, whom the Blue Jackets play most often, that matter most.
“We improve when we compete with some really good hockey clubs in their buildings,” Chimera said, adding that Dallas’ American Airlines Arena is “one of the hardest buildings to play in and win.”
What do these signs of growth mean? Most of all, it means the company line hasn’t changed.
“Our goal is to get in the playoffs,” Shelley said.
Chimera had the same message: “Hopefully, we make a lot of firsts and make our first playoff appearance this year.”
If the Jackets keep growing like they have been the past couple of weeks, attaining that goal doesn’t seem so far off.