It’s opening night at Nationwide Arena and everyone, from the players to the coaches to management to fans, is expecting a different atmosphere from years past.
The Blue Jackets intend to build on last year’s season, a year in which they recorded the most points in franchise history and pushed the Metropolitan Division-winning Penguins to six games in their first-round playoff series.
That success has changed the mantra and raised the expectations in Columbus.
A playoff berth is no longer the ceiling for the Blue Jackets. Leaders for the team speak only of building a winning culture, of expecting to win. Head coach Todd Richards believes that mentality shows that last year’s taste of success has helped his group to grow.
“It was that growth we had throughout the season, growing and maturing as a team, understanding what it took to win and understanding the response after a win," Richards said. "I think the players started to respect when you win games because it make is harder. The next day you come out and it’s harder. When you become a hot and streaky team, teams know that.
"When you become a good team, teams know that. And they’re ready for you.”
Fans know it, too.
Winning drives any fan base, but there’s been excitement for hockey season in Columbus since last season’s push ended on home ice with the Jackets swarming Macr-Andre Fleury’s crease pushing for another dramatic comeback on home ice. The Blue Jackets have sold over 10,200 season tickets, and fans turned out in record-breaking numbers for the Blue Jackets Fanfest event in early September.
But Columbus isn’t the only city where the flag-draped star is popping up.
Already this season, Richards notices a little more union blue in the stands when his team hits the road.
“It was great to see that we had fans in Buffalo (on Thursday) walking up to the bench," Richards said. "I think sometimes, not that you take it for granted, but when you don’t have it, you don’t expect it. For three years you go to visiting buildings, and you don’t see many Blue Jackets jerseys. But now we see more of that following.
“(The fan support) is here and we saw it last year. We’ve got to give our fans a reason to cheer and come down here to support us.”
More games like the Jackets’ win in Buffalo will give fans plenty to cheer about. Tonight, Columbus gets its next big test against the defending conference champion Rangers.
To create a winning culture, you need to be able to skate with the best. The Blue Jackets did that against the Penguins last spring, jump-starting the belief in the fan base that the Jackets may be much more than a bubble team in April.
Richards expects them to raise their game once again.
“We’re getting ready to play the New York Rangers. If you’re getting ready to play the Boston Bruins, Chicago Blackhawks, San Jose Sharks, LA Kings -- I’m talking the elite teams -- you’re already up and ready because you know if you don’t come out and perform, they’re going to make you look bad and they’re going to embarrass you,” said Richards. “What we would like to do is get up to that point. I do know that we’ve created some kind of an identity and that other teams talk about us, but they’re also getting ready for us so it’s going to be tougher for us.”