If the light at the end of the tunnel was once a flicker, it’s now a beacon.
The Blue Jackets had been down this road too many times this season. It had gotten to the point where the GPS, road map and instincts weren’t even necessary – they always seemed to arrive at the same place.
Last Thursday at Pepsi Center in Denver, they carried a 2-0 lead into the third period and closed the deal. Steve Mason was spectacular in goal and made 33 saves against an Avalanche team that brought the kitchen sink in the third period, and Columbus’ pair of Russian defensemen provided the offense.
Two nights later, the setting was Jobing.com Arena in Glendale, Az., but the proceedings did not follow the same script. At one point this season, the Blue Jackets were 8-6-2 when they held a lead after 40 minutes of play – the worst mark in the NHL. Those days are behind them, according to interim head coach Todd Richards, who watched his club take the Coyotes’ best punch in the second period only to battle back and earn a 5-2 win.
Ray Whitney and Lauri Korpikoski needed less than two minutes to erase a 2-0 Blue Jackets lead in the second period on Saturday night, but it was Columbus’ response in the third period that impressed Richards.
“We handled the adversity,” Richards said. “The crowd was into it and you could see they clearly had the momentum. We finished the (second) period strong, but it was a great hockey game. I thought it was a great second period with the excitement and intensity.
“I liked the way we responded in the third. (Mason) made some key saves at key times for us. When they scored those two goals, I don’t think there was any panic from anybody. Everybody liked the way we were playing the game, and the guys knew it and felt it.”
Richards looked up and down his bench throughout that game, and each time he put another line on the ice, he got a contribution. The trickle-down effect started at the top, and the club’s leaders helped extinguish any notion of another game going by the wayside.
Rick Nash’s pair of goals and a diving play to set up Derick Brassard’s 4-2 goal were a prime example. “It starts with your leaders,” Richards said. “Those guys all stepped up. It was their performance on the ice, but it was also them taking the leadership on the bench and in the locker room.”
The Blue Jackets had plenty of reasons not to feel confident when in the lead, but they marched on. Their list of “those that got away” stretches farther in one season than most NHL teams see over multiple years, and the very nature of some games was cruel: a two-goal swing in the final 34 seconds against the Ottawa Senators in October, the Nashville Predators stealing a pair of games from them in the final minutes and a four-goal third period from the Washington Capitals on New Year’s Eve that could have crushed the strongest of clubs.
Brassard said the players are aware of their situation and their place in the standings, but they aren’t willing to let it deter them from building some momentum during the final leg of the season.
“Everyone knows we’re out of the playoffs, but we set goals for the last 18 games,” Brassard said. “It shows a lot that guys are showing character, coming in and trying to beat teams. We’re just trying to get ready for next season and trying to finish the year strong.”
Richards will not take credit, but the Blue Jackets’ third-period vicissitude has coincided with him assuming the head coaching position on Jan. 9. They are playing a determined game in the final 20 minutes and it has helped them close out games and put the past behind them.
“We built a lot of momentum off that Colorado win,” Nash said. “It’s fun to win, and we’re playing good hockey right now. It’s unfortunate we haven’t played that way all year, but we’ll try to keep this going and play for our fans and our city.”