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Playoff fever grips Columbus

by Dan Rosen
It was almost as if Rick Nash didn't know what to do with himself. The Columbus Blue Jackets' 24-year-old captain wasn't quite sure how to feel or what to think on the eve of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

"It's weird," Nash told last after the Blue Jackets' clinched the first playoff berth in franchise history. "Usually we have two games left and I start worrying about the World Championship or what my plans are for the summer. This is something that is different. This is new -- and it's exciting."

And a little sobering too. The Blue Jackets will host their first Stanley Cup Playoff game Tuesday (7 p.m., TSN), trailing the Detroit Red Wings 2-0 in the best-of-7 series.

Still, hosting a playoff game is what guys like Nash and Rostislav Klesla have been waiting for. This is what the city of Columbus and its underrated hockey fans have been dreaming of. This is what the team's founder, the late John H. McConnell, was hoping to see.

Playoff hockey is finally coming to Ohio's capital city. For once, Ohio State spring football isn't the only game in town.

"Guys are excited and guys are happy, but this means a lot more to this franchise and this city," Nash said. "They've been waiting a long time for this. It's for everybody. Columbus has really turned into a hockey town."

Added Klesla: "We kind of owe it to them."

Before the season, began Nash told the honeymoon phase between the fans and this franchise was over. Seven straight dark springs had turned away the once-buzzing Jackets' fan base, which was rocking in 2000 when the city was awarded the team.

The attendance numbers prove what Nash is talking about.

Columbus' best season for attendance was actually in 2001-02, its second year of existence, when the Jackets averaged more than 18,100 for home games in Nash's rookie year. The average attendance dipped under 15,000 last season.

The Jackets averaged roughly 15,500 this season in a building that supposedly seats 18,144, but the Jackets set a record at Nationwide Arena when they jammed 19,167 fans into the building for a March 12 game against Pittsburgh that they won 4-3 in a shootout.

Since that game, Columbus has averaged roughly 16,700 per game.

"It's like anywhere," forward Raffi Torres, who came to the Jackets' this season from Edmonton, told "You have to win if you want people to come out and watch you. The fans want to see the best team on the ice.

"It was tough not having a sold-out building, but you knew the fans were there," he continued. "Now that we're in the playoffs, the fans are showing up everyday."

Klesla and Nash, the longest-serving Blue Jackets, know far too well what it used to be like. The same holds true for Manny Malhotra, the only other player who has been with the team since before the work stoppage.

"Now we feel like we have something even more special to play for to make sure we don't disappoint (the fans)," Klesla told "We're not just going to play the game. We have a lot of support. It's a totally different story than it was a few years ago when we weren't doing so well and you could hear a lot of booing. It's different."

But it's not nearly good enough.

Now that they're in, the Jackets are thinking like the other 15 teams.

"It's really happening, but we don't want to just get in," Klesla said. "We want to win the Cup. If you have the chance you always have to aim for the biggest prize and that's what we're doing. You know, why not us?"

The Jackets will have to start by digging out of the hole created by losses in Detroit. But they say a series doesn't start until someone loses at home, so there is still hope for Columbus.

First and foremost Columbus has the goaltender. Rookie Steve Mason, who had 33 wins and 10 shutouts, has earned the respect of everyone around the NHL. Klesla said Mason allows the Jackets to focus on what is in front of them instead of worrying about what can happen behind them.

It's a sense of comfort and confidence that only the great ones give their teams.

"Before we had Pascal Leclaire and he was a great goalie, too … but with Mase, I don't want to say we count on him, but he makes the stops and he doesn't put the rebounds in front of the net," Klesla said. "You don't have to worry about if the puck is going to trickle into the crease. There is that extra feeling that you have, that extra luxury that other players that play with other great goalies have had.

"He's definitely the cornerstone of this franchise."

On the front line, Columbus has a world-class player in Nash, who put together the best regular season for any player in franchise history with 79 points, 24 multi-point games and 5 shorthanded goals. He scored 40 goals in all and was a plus-11.

Nash's development at the defensive end of the ice since Hitchcock took over as coach in 2006 is nothing short of remarkable.

"He has become one of the best players in the League and for our team he's a really special guy," Klesla said. "He has always carried the team on his shoulders and is always a guy we can count on."

"Guys are excited and guys are happy, but this means a lot more to this franchise and this city. They've been waiting a long time for this. It's for everybody. Columbus has really turned into a hockey town." -- Rick Nash
Nash also said Columbus has the kind of depth that has been missing in the past.

"We have 25 to 28 guys on the team right now, and any guy can play on any given night," Nash said. "Before we had guys that would go down to injury or sickness and nobody to step in and fill the gap."

General Manager Scott Howson built the Jackets into a team that can roll four lines, including two scoring lines with guys like Nash, Kristian Huselius, R.J. Umberger and Antoine Vermette. They also have a productive energy line with guys like Jared Boll, Michael Peca and Torres.

Malhotra is one of the leading faceoff men in the League.

With Klesla, Fedor Tyutin, Jan Hejda and former Stanley Cup winner Mike Commodore, the Jackets have four defensemen who, when healthy, offer enough experience in front of Mason. Kris Russell is a power-play specialist.

"We have the goaltending, strong D with a good mix of stay-at-home guys and puck movers, and we have a lot of offensive talent," Nash said. "Anything can happen now."

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