The Columbus Blue Jackets have never been to the playoffs, but think they might be able to change that this season.
They'll kick off their seventh season in the NHL on Friday when they host the reigning Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks.
The Blue Jackets have never won more than 35 games and are the only NHL team never to have made the playoffs. However, coach Ken Hitchcock points out that after he took over from the fired Gerard Gallant last season, the team was 28-29-5 - not far off from a postseason pace.
"We look at it from this standpoint: With the coaching change, we were a .500 hockey club, which is 85 points," Hitchcock said. "To get in the playoffs, we need a win a month more. That gets us in."
Despite their .500 play after Hitchcock took over, however, the Blue Jackets still finished 25 points out of a playoff spot. Hitchcock readily admits finishing in the top eight in the Western Conference won't be easy.
"This might be the first time in the history of hockey that - and I really believe this - you might need 100 points to get in the playoffs," he said. "There's so many competitive teams now."
Still, Columbus returns a solid nucleus of both young and veteran players. Rick Nash, a 23-year-old left wing, had a team-best 27 goals to go along with 30 assists last season, while 32-year-old right wing David Vyborny had 16 goals and a team-high 64 points.
The Blue Jackets also get back 37-year-old center Sergei Federov (18 goals, 42 points) and 32-year-old left wing Fredrik Modin (22 goals, 42 points). On defense, Columbus is hoping Ole-Kristian Tollefsen, Rostislav Klesla and rookie Kris Russell continue to progress alongside veterans Adam Foote, Ron Hainsey and Duvie Westcott.
Goalie Fredrik Norrena went 24-23-2 last season, becoming the first Columbus goalie to post a winning record, and Pascal Leclaire is back after missing most of the year with leg injuries.
"These fans have been here for 7 or 8 years now and we've had 7 or 8 not-so-good seasons," said 22-year-old forward Dan Fritsche, who had 12 goals and 15 assists in 2006-07. "It just gives you the chills thinking about how this place would explode once we make the playoffs."
The Blue Jackets' biggest offseason acquisition was 33-year-old forward Michael Peca, who has 409 career points and helped guide Edmonton to the Stanley Cup finals in 2006.
"The talent's already here - the Rick Nashes and the David Vybornys," Peca said. "And there's an opportunity to play. As a player, you still want to be in a situation where the team counts on you."
However, new general manager Scott Howson was cautious in the free agent market, preferring to make moves if the Blue Jackets get off to a strong start and in a position to contend for a playoff spot. That's a different strategy than that of his predecessor Doug MacLean, who liked to add high-price free agents before the season.
"The fan base here has a reputation of being pretty passionate and they've been pretty patient with the team," Howson said. "We're just hoping to provide them with a product that they can be proud of."
The Blue Jackets may be short-handed as their season starts after placing Foote (hamstring), Modin (back) and Peca (groin) on injured reserve Tuesday.
All three skated in practice on Monday and Tuesday and might still be cleared to play in the opener.
"We won't have a good read on any of them until later in the week, see if they last and if they're healthy after that first day out," Hitchcock said.
While the Blue Jackets are just getting their season started, the Ducks (1-1-1) are playing their fourth game. After splitting two games with Los Angeles in London, they lost 3-2 in a shootout the Detroit on Wednesday.
After Friday's game in Columbus, Anaheim will travel to Pittsburgh before facing Boston on Wednesday in its home opener.
"We seemed to be very taxed in a lot of ways from the standpoint of moving our feet," Ducks coach Randy Carlyle said.
Todd Bertuzzi had a goal and an assist and Corey Perry, who leads the team with four points, recorded his second assist. Ilya Bryzgalov made 40 saves playing for injured goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere.
Giguere is day-to-day after having hernia surgery, but not expected to be available until the home opener.
"He's starting to take shots now, but we really don't have a timetable," Carlyle said.
The Ducks went 2-1-1 against the Blue Jackets last season, but won both of the meetings in Columbus.