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Playoffs are starting point for Blue Jackets

Columbus wants best season in its history to end with Stanley Cup championship

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist

COLUMBUS -- Amid the celebration, the music cut off, and the locker room went quiet. Coach John Tortorella patted goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky on the arm as he passed by, then addressed the team.

The Columbus Blue Jackets had made the Stanley Cup Playoffs with a 4-1 win against the New Jersey Devils at Prudential Center on Sunday.

"You should feel real good about your [bleeping] selves," Tortorella said as the players peeled off their gear. "All of us. Trainers. Everybody. You should feel real good about yourselves. Just keep it in perspective."

 

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Tortorella raised his left hand higher.

"This is just the start of our road," Tortorella said. "You earned the start of our road."

The Blue Jackets have never won anything in their 16-season history. They've never finished higher than third in their division. They've never won a playoff series. They've made the playoffs two times before and won a total of two games, one at home.

Video: CBJ@NJD: Dubinsky picks the corner on a penalty shot

Now they have set team records for wins (47) and points (100).

But this is no time to take a breath. The Blue Jackets are third in the NHL standings, two points behind the Washington Capitals, one point behind the Pittsburgh Penguins. But that means they are third in the Metropolitan Division. They are also tied in points with the Western Conference-leading Chicago Blackhawks and have one more win in regulation and overtime. 

The Blue Jackets host the Toronto Maple Leafs at Nationwide Arena on Wednesday (7 p.m. ET; SN, TVA Sports, FS-O, NHL.TV) in a potential preview of the Eastern Conference First Round. They visit the Capitals at Verizon Center on Thursday (7 p.m. ET; CSN-DC, FS-O, NHL.TV), a key game in the races for the Presidents' Trophy and the division title.

They have nine regular-season games remaining after that, so the Blue Jackets could win the Presidents' Trophy and the division, or they could again fail to finish higher than third in their division for the first time in their history despite the best season in their history. Crazy.

We like to ask whether they are focused -- or we like to debate whether they should be focused -- on the division for the sake of winning the division, or the Presidents' Trophy for the sake of finishing with the best record in the League, or earning home-ice advantage for the playoffs, or preparing for the playoffs. But they don't need to choose.

Video: CBJ@NJD: Jenner puts game away with an empty-netter

"We want to continue to get better and fine-tune our game so that we're flying on all cylinders come playoffs," captain Nick Foligno said. "If that brings the Presidents' Trophy, great. If not, then we know we've played some real good hockey and we've got to get ready to play even better.

"We're going to chase it by playing the same way we have and playing hard every game. Our end game is the Stanley Cup, but to get there, we need to continue to play well against Toronto, against Washington."

After the Blue Jackets won 16 straight games from Nov. 29 to Jan. 3, the second-longest streak in NHL history, some wondered whether they were a fluke. Tortorella didn't wonder whether they were a fluke but did wonder exactly who they were. He said the upcoming stretch would reveal a lot.

There was some natural regression to the mean. They went 8-10-1 in their next 19 games. But they've gone 10-2-1 during their past 13 games and they still haven't lost three games in a row all season. If they lose four out of seven in a playoff series, even if it's in the first round again, it will be a reflection of how ridiculously competitive the NHL is, not that they were a fluke. If they win in the playoffs, even against Pittsburgh or Washington, it will not be an upset.

This team is for real. It has excellent goaltending with Bobrovsky. It has a mobile defense led by Seth Jones and Zach Werenski. It doesn't have the star power of Washington or Pittsburgh or Chicago up front. No one ranks in the top 20 in points. But right wing Cam Atkinson is tied for fourth in goals with 33 and 11 players have double-digit goal totals.

Video: CBJ@NJD: Bobrovsky denies Devils with two quick saves

Tortorella said making the playoffs with 11 games to go allowed him a chance to experiment with his lineup. Since coming up from Cleveland of the American Hockey League, forward Oliver Bjorkstrand has 10 points (six goals, four assists) in 16 games. Tortorella wants to see if he can fashion three scoring lines instead of two.

But he came into the season with the intention of letting his team play because the game has become faster and more instinctive, and he has young players with talent who could be slowed down by overthinking. The team has earned his trust during the course of the season.

In this past, Tortorella has handed out booklets breaking down playoff opponents because he felt that was the best way for his team to prepare. Not this time. Not with this team. The Blue Jackets will go over their opponents, of course, but they will focus on themselves.

"That doesn't come easy for coaches," Tortorella said. "We're all bit of control freaks, want to touch everything, and sometimes we touch so many things we screw it up. That's been a huge process with the development of the team here is me trusting them. It's not like I'm just going to give you trust. That has to be earned, and that's a huge component of where we've come as a unit here."

They have earned the start of their road, but they need to stay on the same path.

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