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Sacrifice Necessary to Win in Playoffs

by David DiCenzo / Columbus Blue Jackets

It's here.

For those Blue Jackets who had never experienced the tension and gut-wrenching drama of an NHL playoff series, they're finding out what all the talk is about it. Speed, desperation, physicality that is levels above your typical regular season game.

Many of the players in the Columbus room have already had a taste. Jason Williams and Mike Commodore have Stanley Cup rings and know how difficult the grind can be, especially against Detroit.

Michael Peca has played more playoff games than anyone on the Jackets' roster. He's suited up 95 times in the postseason, making two runs to the Stanley Cup final round. Peca is well aware of the toll both the body and mind takes at this time of the year. But the reason a player does it is because of what awaits the survivors.

"When you think about the reward at the end, winning a series, that's what you have to go through to do it," says Peca. "Just like Gretzky said after (the Edmonton Oilers) lost their first one to the Islanders. They all walked by the Islanders room and those guys were icing up. It just shows the sacrifice it takes to win.

"It's the reward you get from the success that makes it all go away."

The roster additions the franchise has made in the past two seasons seem like they were specifically designed for this moment. Ready to go to war with a group that may not be playoff tested collectively but one that has many players that know what to expect.

Head coach Ken Hitchcock has emphasized that his guys needed to go through the experience together to really bond and after accomplishing an important goal in making the postseason, they have laid some of that groundwork.

"We've brought people here to help us now," says Hitchcock. "They know exactly what it takes to play.

"We're a young franchise but we're not a young team."

That experience is rubbing off on players like Rick Nash. The captain, sporting the obligatory shaggy beard, is thinking of the task ahead as his team finds itself down 2-0 to Detroit. It took a while to get here but he has home playoff hockey games to look forward to.

"This is what everyone plays for," says Nash, a bona fide Red Wing killer this season with two hat tricks. "I've played six years in the league... I'm really excited.

"It's good to have those guys for their experience," he adds his teammates who have been through the postseason. "They've been through it."

Manny Malhotra has only played seven playoff games in his NHL career. But he can't wait to get at it in front of the home crowd at Nationwide Arena.

"At this point, the excitement's gone," says Malhotra. "Guys are getting antsy and we just want to get at it." 

R.J. Umberger is a couple weeks away from his 27th birthday but the big forward has an impressive playoff resume already. Umberger has the only goal through two games for the Jackets and the team will look to build on that heading into Game 3.

Last season, he played in 17 playoff games with the Philadelphia Flyers and scored 10 times to go along with five assists as he made it to the Eastern Conference Final against the Pittsburgh Penguins. He calls the performance in that run the highlight of his NHL career to date and he would love to build off of what he's already experienced.

It was a big moment in my life," Umberger says. "This is a new chance at that.

"If you can win a playoff series and move on, you never know what can happen."

Beating the Red Wings would be considered an upset for the Jackets, though they have had some serious success against the defending champs in the past two seasons. The team’s younger players like Jake Voracek (assist in Game 1), Kris Russell, Marc Methot and Steve Mason have had as much to do with that success as the key veterans with playoff experience.

Peca says that there is nothing that brings a team together more than making a run in the playoffs. The beauty of it is that it requires the input of every player, no matter their experience. Two lines won't cut it. Neither will two good D pairs, or one goalie.

"It's a special event that takes place, special bonding," says Peca. "Part of the reason is that you really are sacrificing a lot for one another. Game in, game out, it's similar to international hockey where you have to do whatever it takes to win.

"You've got to commit to a certain role, you've got to be able to step up in big situations and that's everyone."

The big, shiny carrot dangling at the end of it is all the incentive they'll need.

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