Fans of the Columbus Blue Jackets have waited eight seasons for the chance to see their team in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Two of the current Blue Jackets have been waiting almost as long to make their first appearances in the NHL's postseason.
Defenseman Rostislav Klesla has been with the organization since the team's inaugural season in 2000 (eight games), while Captain Rick Nash joined the squad in 2002. On April 8, fans anxiously watched the game against the Chicago Blackhawks waiting to see if their team could clinch it's first-ever playoff berth by earning at least one point. It was fitting that the game-tying goal in Chicago at the 14:30 mark of the third period came off Rick Nash's stick.
"(I was just) trying to win the game," said Nash, when talking about what he thought after scoring the game tying goal. "(I wasn't thinking anything) towards the long run. It was 'we tied it, now let's go try to win it.'"
The team held on to force overtime, clinching the teams' first-ever playoff berth, and eventually won the game 4-3 in a shootout. In Nash's 439th game in the NHL he helped punch the Jackets' ticket to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
"It was a relief (to clinch)," said Nash. "It was nice to know that the city is finally going to be in the playoffs. It was a huge weight off our shoulders."
It was an exciting moment for Klesla as well. The defenseman was the team’s first pick and fourth overall in the 2000 Entry Draft and skated in the Jackets inaugural game. After 444 games with the organization he has earned his first trip to the Stanley Cup Finals.
"I was very happy (after the team clinched)," said Klesla. "It was very exciting. I'm happy that we are going to move on and have a chance to compete for the Stanley Cup. It's the best feeling a hockey player can have."
Nash, who was the first pick overall in the 2002 Entry Draft, has had a lot of success on the ice. He is a four-time NHL All-Star, he earned the Maurice "Rocket" Richard Trophy as the Top Goal Scorer in 2003-04 and he was a finalist for the Calder Memorial Trophy which goes to the Rookie of the Year in 2002-03. However, what really matters to Nash is stepping on the ice in Detroit for his first NHL Stanley Cup Playoff game.
"This means everything," said Nash. "This is what we play for. This is why we workout all summer and why we play 82 games. It's for this and it means everything."
Over the past couple of seasons, the organization has made numerous changes. Scott Howson has been named the general manager and Ken Hitchcock has been named the team’s head coach. The team has made several key acquisitions and has a core group of young talent. All of the moves have been made with the purpose of preparing for this moment. For Blue Jackets fans and these two long-time veterans the patience has finally paid off.
"(This feeling) is great," said Nash. "We've been here through the low times and now we are going through the high times. It's exciting for everyone, not only for the players and the fans, but for the front office and the owners."