COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The longest playoff drought in the American Hockey League is over, and some of the brightest young talent in the Blue Jackets organization helped make it happen.
Cam Atkinson, a product of the Blue Jackets development system and scorer of two monstrous goals in Columbus' 3-1 win in Dallas on Thursday night and the empty netter in front of a sold-out barn on Saturday night, was just a middle-schooler when the Springfield Falcons last qualified for the postseason. The year was 2003 and a lot has changed in western Massachusetts since that time, making this Calder Cup quest that much more special for the loyal fans who have made their way to MassMutual Center over the years.
Under the direction of rookie head coach Brad Larsen, the Falcons reinvented the way they do things and it started from the ground up. Larsen made it clear from day one that accountability was going to the primary pillar they would build with; and it wasn't just accountability within the dressing room, he said back in October, it was going to be accountability to the coaches, staff, management and hockey fans in Springfield who were starved for winning hockey.
"Everyone knew from day one what was expected of them, and if we didn't do our jobs, there would be consequences," Atkinson told BlueJackets.com. "One of the most important things down in Springfield was having great leadership and a great coaching staff. Ryan Craig was such a great captain for us...to have a guy like that who's had success and teach the young guys how to be a pro, treat yourself, your body and prepare, it was huge.
"The coaching staff doesn't take any excuses; whether you're a top-line player on the fourth line, if you're not doing your job, you got punished for it. That was the most important thing for us because it showed you have to show up day in and day out."
Springfield started its playoff run on the right foot on Saturday night: Cody Bass was credited for the overtime winner on a nice deflection in front of the net, sending the Falcons to a 2-1 victory in front of a sold-out crowd at MassMutual Center. The second game of their best-of-five series is Sunday afternoon in Springfield.
The Falcons broke training camp with over 30 players due the NHL lockout and had an opportunity to play multiple preseason games - a preparation luxury not often enjoyed in minor league hockey - and Larsen took advantage of the chance to implement his structure and systems right away.
With several of the Blue Jackets' young prospects in the mix to open the season (Matt Calvert, Ryan Johansen, Atkinson, Jonathan Audy-Marchessault, David Savard, Tim Erixon just to name a few), Springfield took off out of the gates and made the most of a home-heavy first month of the season.
And despite losing a huge chunk of their roster to injuries, NHL call-ups and trades, the Falcons kept going and Larsen had the group bought-in to their style. As they watched other AHL teams go through the same situation and drop out of the race, the Falcons didn't let it affect them.
Springfield finished the 2012-13 season with a franchise-record 45 wins and won the Northeast Division with 99 points - 20 points more than second-place Connecticut, which took the brunt of a heated I-91 rivalry series in the regular season - the club's first division title in 15 years.
The Falcons drew a first-round Calder Cup playoffs match-up with the Manchester Monarchs, a team they went 4-1-1 against in the regular season. But as much fun as the regular season was around The Nest, the Falcons know that their next step is what they will be remembered for.
"It's been a fun year from start to finish, and I think the fans and players have really enjoyed it," goaltender Curtis McElhinney told Falcons TV. "We were, for the most part, fairly consistent. Any time we had down periods we seemed to find a way to bounce back. It's a long season, but everybody pulled their way throughout it.
"I think we match up pretty well with them and we had some back-and-forth games with them. It's been a little while since we've seen them, but overall, I think it should be a fun and exciting first round."
McElhinney has been just one guy on a long list of contributors to Springfield's rapid turn-around, but the 30-year-old veteran goaltender was one of the AHL's best performers between the pipes.
His nine shutouts were the most by any goaltender in the 70-year history of pro hockey in Springfield, and no other goaltender in the AHL posted more than six. Much like Falcons leading scorer Audy-Marchessault (who posted 21 goals and 67 points on the year), McElhinney's summer signing with the Blue Jackets didn't create many ripples, but he's been part of a tidal wave of success.
And the most exciting thing for Larsen is that young players throughout the Blue Jackets organization are getting an opportunity to play in big games, be it down the stretch in the NHL or competing for championship in Springfield.
“For Columbus, having our team make the playoffs means the players are involved in a winning culture," he told MassLive.com. "Players who get to compete in the playoffs see what it really takes to win. The playoffs are a grind. They can wear you down mentally and physically.
"To win, you need a commitment to doing the right things in every game, every shift. We’ll see (this weekend) how these players respond.”