Within a 12-hour span, both Ryan Johansen and Dalton Prout went from one playoff race to another with almost no time to think about it. And fortunately for Prout, this trip went smoothly and didn't involve any cab rides through downtown Chicago.
Shortly after the Blue Jackets saw their playoff hopes end with twin victories from Minnesota and Detroit on the last day of the NHL's regular season, Blue Jackets management informed both players that they would be assigned to Springfield to join the Falcons for their Calder Cup playoff run - providing an instant boost to a team that has been humming along through the ebbs and flows of a wild, hectic season.
Johansen and Prout began the 2012-13 season with the Falcons during the NHL lockout and were part of a franchise-best start for Springfield, which won nine of its first 10 home games and soared to the top of the Eastern Conference. On the strength of a well-balanced forward group, strong defense and superb goaltending from Curtis McElhinney, the Falcons quickly became the team that no one wanted to play.
Those were the vibes that they felt in Columbus during the Blue Jackets' playoff push, mounting a furious charge with a 19-5-5 record down the stretch while taking care of some of the top teams in the Western Conference.
The Blue Jackets were a tough out, a team that would never say die - exactly what both guys see in the Falcons.
“In the two games I’ve played in so far, there’s absolutely an intensity level and urgency like what we dealt with in Columbus down the stretch," Johansen told BlueJackets.com. "Every game means so much and every shift is so important, and the experience we had really benefited me. Those last 20-30 games, we were battling every game and fighting for every point…the intensity and compete level is something I’m accustomed to and used to now.”
“Both organizations are winning and it’s a credit to all the players who have helped the teams turn the corner." - Dalton Prout, on the organization's turnaround
The aforementioned taxi cab reference applies to Prout, who joined the Blue Jackets in a whirlwind of his own earlier in the season. He was a last-minute call-up from Springfield, had to catch a late afternoon flight out of Hartford (not an easy place to do so) and didn't land in Chicago until close to game time.
He flagged down a cab from the airport and managed to join the team midway through the first period, and really, never looked back. Prout was a team-best +15 and provided a physical, nasty edge on the blue line and showed he was able to play with just about anyone on defense - which made the quick transition a lot easier coupled with his extended time in Springfield to start the year.
“I think it’s a different adjustment in terms of the pace of play, which isn’t the same and the game isn’t as clean," Prout told BlueJackets.com. "It’s not sloppy and there’s a little less execution, but the transition is easy because I’ve played with most of these guys for a year and a half and I know my teammates really well. It’s good to see all the guys again.
“It was a whirlwind in Columbus but it was such an awesome experience to be part of what we were accomplishing. You can’t ever look back on something until the season is done because nothing stops and you’re always busy, but when the season’s done, you look it and think about it a bit.”
For now, though, their focus shifts to the Syracuse Crunch, a team whose players won last year's Calder Cup championship in a remarkable postseason run that included a professional hockey record: a 28-game winning streak that started on Feb. 10 and concluded with a win over Adirondack on Apr. 15.
Tampa Bay switched affiliates from Norfolk (which won the Calder Cup) to Syracuse in the offseason, and many of the Admirals' players from that run are still with the Crunch.
After a grinding, competitive first-round series against the Manchester Monarchs, the Falcons have a different test on their hands this time. The Crunch are a high-powered offensive team with good goaltending that knows how to get the job done - but the Falcons have a tunnel vision of their own that Johansen said starts with their leadership.
Captain Ryan Craig, a veteran of eight AHL seasons and a second-tour member of the Falcons, receives a lot of credit for setting a standard of professionalism with a young team and reinforcing the expectations put forth by Brad Larsen's coaching staff.
"When you’re in the playoffs, you need your leaders to keep you together and step up in the big situations," Johansen said. "(Craig) is such a true pro, and his leadership has been a key for us as we move forward in the playoffs. He’s always doing the right things and has the same attitude every day with everything he does.
"He has the experience of being around the AHL and NHL for a long time. We soak up everything he says to us because he’s such a smart guy, a hard-working player and gives a total effort every night. I know myself and the other guys here have learned so much just from watching the way he does things.”
There is a lot of learning on-the-fly in a fast-paced, pressurized situation like the playoffs, which can begin and end in the blink of an eye, Prout said. But this season has been kind of a perfect storm, allowing the Blue Jackets' young players to start the season in a healthy, winning atmosphere in Springfield and, if recalled to the NHL, having the tools to succeed installed as part of their fabric.
It's all part of a marked change at both levels in the organization, Prout said, one that has provided a clear-cut road map for player development.
“As your career goes on, the more you play in crucial and important games, the more beneficial it is to your mindset every time you go into pressure-packed games," Prout said. "It makes you more cool, calm and collected in high-pressure situations in a playoff run, like Game 7’s and things like that.
“Both organizations are winning and it’s a credit to all the players who have helped the teams turn the corner. There are some good young players, some experienced veterans who were great leaders and showed us the way. Hopefully it paves the way both in Columbus and Springfield for years to come.”