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Better start, puck possession keys for Blue Jackets

by Craig Merz continues its preview of the 2014-15 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout September.

The Columbus Blue Jackets feel they've turned the corner as a franchise following their second Stanley Cup Playoffs appearance in 13 seasons.

Even though the Blue Jackets were beaten in six games by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference First Round, the excitement generated in April, including winning twice in overtime, has resulted in season ticket sales surpassing 10,000 for the first time since 2009-10.

Defenseman Dalton Prout said the enthusiasm in Columbus is palpable.

"You see any fan that recognizes you or at a fan appearance the first thing they say is, 'Wow, playoffs,'" he said. "That's our mentality inside out too. Everybody who went through the playoffs the first time was, 'Wow.'"

The key for the Blue Jackets is to build on that momentum and qualify for the postseason in consecutive seasons for the first time in franchise history. But even that will not be enough.

"Last year we made the playoffs," left wing Nick Foligno said. "Now it's trying to better your position in the playoffs and go further and win the Stanley Cup."

Here are three things the Blue Jackets have to do in order to achieve their goals:

1. A better start -- The past two seasons have meant climbs out of deep holes for the Blue Jackets. In the shortened 2012-13 season, they started 5-12-2 and even a 19-5-5 finish left them one point out of the playoffs.

Last season they were 5-10-0 through 15 games but managed to earn the first wild-card spot.

"It's not fun making it hard on yourselves the last two months of the year," left wing Matt Calvert said.

Right wing Mark Letestu thinks stability in the roster will help avoid another slow start.

"It nearly cost us the playoffs two years in a row," he said. "Thankfully we found a way last season to right the ship early enough to still get in.

"The continuity on the roster is going to help us when the puck drops. There's no really trying to feel your way into what you're going to play. Guys know their roles. Guys know where they fit."

2. Up the level of play -- The days of seemingly facing every opponent's backup goalie are over. Since Feb. 26, 2013, the Blue Jackets are 62-37-12, good for the eighth-most points in the NHL, and are no longer considered a pushover.

"We deserve some credit for being a good team and maybe they didn't take us seriously at first, but I'm sure it will be different this year," defenseman Jack Johnson said.

That means the Blue Jackets must be consistently better to match the effort and intensity of the other teams. It's not easily accomplished considering their youthfulness.

"There's four steps to the season: preseason, the start to the regular season, then it's after the All-Star Game and then it's the playoffs," center Brandon Dubinsky said. "Every time it jumps. Those [young] guys have gotten a taste and a feeling of that jump so they'll be ready."

3. Keep the puck -- General manager Jarmo Kekalainen said the Blue Jackets finally have developed enough talent to dictate play.

"I believe the best defense is having the puck," he said. "If you have the puck, the other team is not going to score very often. Whether it's our fourth line or our first line, we'll have the puck. We have guys that have skill that can protect the puck and hold onto the puck."

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