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Ready to charge: strong start crucial for Jackets

by Brian McCormack / Columbus Blue Jackets

The ice is down, the cannon is loaded, and Blue Jacket fans are preparing for battle.

Expectations are high in Columbus after the Jackets’ best season in franchise history. They collected 93 points during the regular season and took the Metropolitan Division-leading Penguins to six games in their first round playoff series. But before fans can defend Nationwide Arena in May, the Jackets will have to take care of business once again during a grueling NHL regular season in one of the league’s toughest divisions.

A strong start to the season will go a long way to ensuring a second straight season of playoff hockey in Columbus.

The Jackets overcame a difficult start last season, going 7-10-3 to open the season. Good teams make up for rough stretches, and the Jackets did just that as their line-up solidified and regulars returned to the roster.

The Jackets won a franchise record eight straight games from Jan. 6-23, and had six different winning streaks of three games or more. After Nov. 7, the team never played more than three games without securing at least a point in the standings.

Columbus started the 2012-13 season in a similar fashion, beginning 4-10-2 against what was then an exclusively Western Conference schedule. The Jackets were one of the league’s best teams to finish the year, winning 11 of 14 and giving fans a taste of what was to come. But their rough start coupled with the abbreviated schedule of a lockout-shortened season left the Jackets just outside the playoff picture, tied in points with the Minnesota Wild but with three fewer regulation/overtime wins.

“I think what’s great is we kind of learned,” said forward Nick Foligno. “We had such a great finish but obviously didn’t make the playoffs [during the lockout season]. And I think we had that mentality going into last season and I don’t think it helped us very much. We thought we’d pick up right where we left off, and when it didn’t happen we got down on ourselves. That was a learning experience and that’s how you get better in this league.”

The Jackets took a major step forward last season with their strong play in April and by pushing Pittsburgh to the brink in the playoffs. If they can have a healthy Nathan Horton with newly acquired Scott Hartnell ready to start strong for the Jackets, the team should be looking to do the same. 

Just securing a playoff berth is no longer satisfaction enough for this Blue Jackets team, and they will find themselves much better positioned in the spring to secure a high seed if they don’t need to exert energy filling a hole dug in October.

“It’s not fun making it hard on yourself at the start of the year,” said forward Matt Calvert. “You obviously want to be comfortable in a playoff spot. But if you look back to the lockout year, we had such a new team. We were working hard and doing the right things but we just weren’t meshing together. And I think that’s part of building as a team.”

“Last year the injury bug hit us early, but we know what to expect out of each other, we know what each guy is going to bring, and we know what makes us successful.”

It will be a challenging task, as the Jackets face a challenging west-coast swing through San Jose, Anaheim, and Los Angeles in late October. But should Columbus maintain a decent record through that trip, the Jackets will return to host the Senators and Maple Leafs before facing five divisional opponents in their next six games.

“We want to get up to game speed right away, and it starts in practice,” said head coach Todd Richards. “How you practice, the intensity, physicality, those are all things. And as coaches we try to stress to play it like games, and it’s the truth. “

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