The burgeoning potential of the Columbus Blue Jackets' roster is proving to be one of the most captivating stories in the NHL these days. For the first time in their brief history, the Blue Jackets are a team to be reckoned with, thanks to an exciting combination of budding stars and a likeable cast of veterans.
And yes, that includes one rookie goaltender looking to join a storied list of players, already consisting of Hall of Famers Terry Sawchuk, Tony Esposito, Ken Dryden and Patrick Roy, who have won the Calder Trophy as the League's most accomplished first-year skater.
Yes, things are looking up in Columbus.
With a 7-1-1 record against the Eastern Conference, including two 3-0 shutouts of the high-powered Washington Capitals and the franchise's first-ever victory over the Philadelphia Flyers, plus success against several Western powerhouses, the Blue Jackets are proving daily that they aren't the same old afterthought.
Columbus is the only active NHL club to have never qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs and has never won more than 35 games in its seven-year tenure. Its franchise-best campaign came in 2005-06, with a 35-43-4 record and a third-place finish in the Central Division. This season, however, things in Ohio are drastically different.
Unexpectedly, this season has become a coming-out party for one of the most exciting teams in hockey. The electricity of the Blue Jackets' young core was on display during Tuesday's wild 4-3 victory over the Colorado Avalanche. "We are willing to do anything to win a hockey game, from a work standpoint," Blue Jackets coach Ken Hitchcock said. "If it's not pretty, at least we're working. (Tuesday) wasn't a masterpiece, but we worked and we stayed with it, we battled. The people in the stands really recognize that right now. (The fans) won't let the team drop their level (of play). I feel it on the bench, they are demanding that we keep going and I haven't felt that since I started coaching here (until now)."
Entering the game, Colorado was one point ahead of the Blue Jackets for the final spot in the Western Conference playoff picture. But Columbus' rookies stepped up and the veterans chipped in once again, despite missing the injured Rick Nash
, and Derick Brassard
, who was lost for the remainder of the season in mid-December.
"We are in some tough circumstances right now and it's a great opportunity for some of the younger guys to step up and take advantage of more ice time," rookie goalie Steve Mason
said. "We have done it the last couple of games and hopefully we will have continued success with it."
Even the veterans have taken a positive approach to getting bitten by the injury bug.
"Yeah, it (stinks), but at the same time it gives a chance for guys to come up and play," defenseman Mike Commodore said. "It gives a chance to guys that don't usually play all the much to play a lot more and that's been great."
Having posted four shutouts in his past eight games, Mason was not his usual self, yielding three goals and turning aside only 21 shots. But like a veteran, the 20-year-old grinded out his 16th win in his 26th career start. A third-round pick in 2006 by Columbus, Mason leads the NHL with a 1.80 goals-against average, a .936 save percentage and six shutouts. His strong play has helped him earn the league's rookie of the month for November and December.
"We know what we have to do to make the playoffs and I think everyone has bought into that and it is showing with the results we are getting with all of these wins," Mason said.
Brassard, October's winner, had generated the most buzz from all the first-year sensations on the Blue Jackets. Also drafted in 2006, the 21-year-old Brassard still ranks second among rookies in points (25) despite being out for about a month now.
Fellow rookie Jakub Voracek, Scott Howson's first pick as the team's new general manager in 2007, also has been shown to be quite an investment. The 19-year-old Voracek scored his sixth goal of the season against the Avalanche, tying the game at 1-1 with 1:49 left in the second period before veterans R.J. Umberger
, Kristian Huselius
and Michael Peca headlined a third-period surge that propelled Columbus to its third-straight win.
"We have really been playing well," Voracek said. "With all of the young guys on this team we are getting an opportunity and playing well and winning some games."
Against Colorado, rookie Nikita Filatov, the Blue Jackets' top choice in the 2008 draft, was held off the score sheet one game after notching his first career hat trick in a 4-2 win over the Minnesota Wild. Filatov, 18, had been playing with the AHL's Syracuse Crunch before competing for Russia at the World Junior Championship.
"When I was first sent down to Syracuse, I learned a lot of lessons there," Filatov said. "Coach helped me especially on how to play defense like I must do to be a good player here. Hopefully, I can continue to play well here and with all the injuries to the other guys and help the team anyway I can."
It turns out having Nash, the team's lone All-Star, sidelined for several games with a sprained right knee has been a blessing in disguise as the youngsters have grown up very quickly in their captain's absence.
"Its better now in the arena than it was before and I think that is because we are winning and playing pretty well," Voracek said. "So I hope we can continue to do that."
"The atmosphere here is great," Mason agreed. "The fans are really getting into the game and now that we are winning a few games hopefully that will only continue to get better."
Author: Brian Fitzsimmons | NHL.com Correspondent