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Jackets manage the grind of "must-win" hockey

by Brian McCormack / Columbus Blue Jackets

The NHL season is a grind. And Thursday's practice capped the Blue Jackets’ final breather before the schedule throws them through the wringer once again.

The Blue Jackets had three days off between Monday night’s loss to the Los Angeles Kings and Friday night’s matchup with the Philadelphia Flyers. It’s the longest break they’ll have between games for the rest of the season, a stretch of 30 games in 58 days and nine back-to-backs.

“It’s a grind. It’s a lot of fun, but you have your ups and downs,” said Jackets forward Matt Calvert. “Whether it’s injuries, or streaks and slumps, there are so many ups and downs in a season. That’s why I think you don’t get too high on your highest note or too low on your lowest. That’s what I’ve learned to live by.”

The Blue Jackets have certainly experienced the streaks and the injuries, and those are the major reasons they find themselves playing desperation hockey. In reality, the Jackets have been playing in "must-win" mode for a while now after two separate October-November losing streaks put them behind the eight-ball in the playoff chase.

“When you put yourself in that kind of position and you have that kind of a losing streak in November, it’s tough to get out. You need to play desperate hockey,” said Calvert. "Those one-goal games mean a lot when you lose them and you want to be on the other side of it. It’s tough to play desperate everyday, but we got ourselves into this hole and it’s our jobs to get ourselves out of it.

“It’s an 82-game season and even the first place team in the league loses 30-something games a year. But we’re in a position where we have to win every night and we have to find a way to put three of every four together.”

It’s a tough way to play the game, and even tougher over an extended period.

“You have to find ways to stay fresh and keep having fun," said defenseman Jack Johnson. "If it becomes a daunting task and there’s no spirit or fun involved in it, then it becomes really hard. It becomes a mental grind. You need to keep practices fun and games fun and exciting because you still have that approach to it, and it’s easier to play desperate and to mentally go out and give everything you have.”

Compounding that grind is the time of year. February can be that lost month in the middle of the season, right before the final push and 15 games in March.

“February is usually the worst month,” said Johnson. “It’s always been the dog days for me personally, but thankfully it’s a short month that comes and goes fairly quickly. You need to clean up in February because it’s a sprint to the finish after that.”

“You might win, you might not, but you have to find ways to keep things fresh and don’t forget you’re getting paid to play a game you love with your buddies every night.”

Other stuff from around the rink…

- Todd Richards met with reporters after Thursday’s practice and said that James Wisniewski playing in Friday night’s game was still a possibility. Richards is awaiting medical clearance for Wisniewski. Dalton Prout will not be available Friday.

- Curtis McElhinney will start his fourth straight game Friday night. McElhinney has been strong in net for the Jackets, going 6-3-0 in his last nine games with a .929 save percentage and a 2.37 goals-against average.

- Sergei Bobrovsky continues to work his way back from injury, skating on his own in full equipment during the past week. Bobrovsky sustained a groin injury on Jan. 21 in Winnipeg, an injury expected to keep him out of the lineup for 4-6 weeks.

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