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Strong finish offers high hopes for next season

by Brian McCormack / Columbus Blue Jackets

The Blue Jackets’ franchise record 13-game point streak that closed out the regular season wasn’t enough to push them over the threshold and into the playoffs, but it was certainly a strong enough showing to once again have fans and management alike excited for the coming season.

“As disappointed as I am sitting here now and having this presser two months earlier than I’d like to, I’m proud of the guys and the way they handled themselves as professionals at the end of the year,” GM Jarmo Kekalainen said Monday. “They could have just mailed it in when we knew we weren’t going to be in the playoffs for a while at the end. But they didn’t, they played hard and they played every game to win.”

The Jackets closed the season on a 12-0-1 run, their only loss an overtime loss at Madison Square Garden against the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Rangers that was 27 seconds away from being another impressive road victory. And while that was certainly the run that got the rest of the NHL’s attention, the Jackets’ resurgent second half began much earlier in the eyes of hockey operations president John Davidson.

“Our record from Dec. 1 on was 16 over .500. Our goal scoring was better than anticipated,” said Davidson. “Our development of players as we try to evolve as a franchise was extremely satisfying in a lot of ways.”

It is a mantra in sports that injuries are never an excuse, and the Blue Jackets never hid behind their unprecedented list of casualties. But if there was ever a season in which that excuse would be accepted by anyone and everyone, this was that season.

“There was a time when we had our goalie out, we had four of our top six defensemen out, and we had three of our top four centermen out,” said Davidson, whose team lost over 500 man-games to injury over the course of the season. “I don’t know who wins with that.”

“It’s disastrous in a lot of ways. Ryan Murray lost valuable hockey time, as did Boone Jenner and others. It becomes very expensive when you look at the business side of things.”

And yet with a glass half-full mentality, injuries forced the Blue Jackets to give the young players expected to be crucial members of the franchise a long, hard look. That includes Marko Dano and Alexander Wennberg, two rookies that management was very pleased with by season’s end.

As the team slowly got healthier during the season, the results turned around as well, leaving Kekalainen to believe that while individual injuries might have devastated this season, his long-term roster may have come out ahead.

“At this time last year we were getting ready for the playoffs," Kekalainen said. "I think we have a better team right now. I wish we were getting ready for a game on Wednesday or Thursday.”

The Jackets' final 13 games proved a lot to management with their minds geared towards Training Camp 2015 and a great deal of roster competition on the horizon. The Blue Jackets went 8-0-1 during the streak against teams that qualified for the playoffs. And while some argue that those games are easier to play without the pressure of playoff expectations, Kekalainen disagrees.

“There are no easy games in the NHL, it’s the best league in the world," he said. "We beat some teams that were in very meaningful games in the race for the playoffs fighting for their lives and trying to get the best possible position for the playoffs, and we beat them fair and square.

“So we know what this group can do and that’s what we saw at the end of the year. And whether it changes or maintains our belief in this group, that’s something we’re still processing through the meetings that we’re having and studying statistics.”

The Blue Jackets won nine of their final 10 road games to finish with a 23-15-3 record away from Nationwide Arena, 10th-best in the NHL and an impressive feat for a team as young and banged up as this squad was. Davidson and Kekalainen were both encouraged knowing that their group has the character in the locker room to be successful on the road, but the trials at home were a different story.

The Jackets won their final six games on home ice to bring their final record to 19-20-2.

“I think the home record is kind of mind-boggling to me," Kekalainen said. "We have great fans here. They were behind us even during the tough times, cheering us and we had a bad home record at the time.

“They were still cheering us when they could have easily turned on us and booed us out of the building. Part of our theme going through the end of the season was that we owed it to the fans to play better at home.”

Davidson and Kekalainen joined the Blue Jackets with goal of creating a winning culture, an attitude that was recognized during last year’s playoff run and then confirmed when Scott Hartnell chose to waive his no-trade clause to join the team. The players are not satisfied with being the league’s hottest team to finish the regular season. They want to win, they want to win now, and they want to win here.

“Over the last couple of days, we’ve met with every player,” said Davidson. “And to a man, they love our locker room and they all really want to be Blue Jackets.”

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