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Playoffs didn't come easy for Blue Jackets

NHL.com @NHL

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -For a team that had never had a winning record, let alone made the playoffs, the regular season that just ended was a magical ride for the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Yet in November it would not have been a stretch to suggest that the franchise might sink out of sight before it ever saw a postseason game. Injuries, bad moves and bad luck conspired to drop the Blue Jackets to the depths of the Western Conference standings - a place they had called home for most of their eight years in the NHL.

They had lost four more games than they won in the season's first four weeks. They also lost prized rookie Derick Brassard - arguably the only first-line center on the roster at the time - to a season-ending shoulder injury. Starting goaltender Pascal Leclaire was having problems with a troublesome ankle and a couple of other regulars were hurting.

It was time for another customary fold by the Blue Jackets. They'd done it before.

"We didn't want to hear that," said forward R.J. Umberger, new to the team after being acquired in a trade in the summer. "Early on when we lost those 2-1 games and we outshot and out-chanced teams, in the past that was good enough. This year it wasn't. From early on, we wanted to win those games. We weren't satisfied with being just OK. We wanted to go to the playoffs and we were serious from the get-go."

Maybe it was a change in attitude, or maybe it was a simple transaction - an inspired call-up. But something changed things. Dramatically.

Steve Mason, considered the club's goalie of the future even though Leclaire was only 26, was called up to relieve Fredrik Norrena, who was filling in for the hobbled Leclaire. When Norrena played poorly in a 4-3 overtime loss to the New York Islanders on Nov. 3, the Blue Jackets elected to throw the 20-year-old Mason into the fire.

In the 15th game of the season, he got his first start and beat Calgary 3-1. For most of the rest of the season - until he was waylaid for a time by mononucleosis - Mason was at home in goal.

Gradually, the Blue Jackets got healthier. They accepted, even if they didn't exactly embrace, coach Ken Hitchcock's disciplined, forechecking, trapping, game.

Still, a 3-0 home loss to Los Angeles on Dec. 23 dropped Columbus to 14-16-4 and off the playoff pace. The Blue Jackets responded with four wins in a row, with Mason carrying the load. Oblivious to the pressure and high expectations, the kid from Oakville, Ont., shut out Philadelphia at home and Los Angeles and Anaheim on the road before winning at Colorado 6-1.

All of a sudden everyone in the NHL was talking about the 6-foot-4, 212-pound rookie, as unflappable a character as can be imagined.

"You don't really have a lot of time to sit around and think about it," said Mason, who would finish with a league-high 10 shutouts. "You just kind of take it day by day and enjoy it."

The Blue Jackets didn't cool off, going 7-2 over a stretch that encompassed a season-long six-game road trip. They started to think they might have some staying power.

"We had a road trip after Christmas that was great. Everyone was firing," said captain Rick Nash, who would lead the Blue Jackets with a franchise-record 79 points. "From then on, we believed in ourselves and won a lot more games."

In midseason, general manager Scott Howson picked up two important cogs for the stretch run and beyond, centers Jason Williams and Antoine Vermette. Both made major contributions over the last two months.

During a week early in March, the Blue Jackets proved they could play with anybody - including the Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings.

"We beat the Wings 8-2, then we went back home and beat Boston, Pittsburgh and Chicago - all top teams - and that was kind of a wake-up call for those teams to realize we could compete with the best teams in the league," Mason said.

The Blue Jackets went 9-4-2 in March. A playoff spot was within their grasp.

They clinched it with another improbable win, coming back from a 2-0 deficit in Chicago's United Center a week ago to beat the Blackhawks 4-3 on defenseman Fedor Tyutin's shootout goal. It was the first time he'd even been called on to take such a big shot, but Hitchcock played another hunch that paid off. A lot of them have.

"There's a feeling in the locker room where there's a fear of losing," Hitchcock said. "That's exactly what you want. The joy of winning, sometimes it lasts a little while, sometimes a long time. But that fear of losing, that you feel in your locker room, it's a great feeling. And that's here right now."

The Blue Jackets face another uphill struggle, against the team that they once deigned to call a rival - a rival that barely acknowledged there was a franchise in Columbus.

Game 1 is Thursday night at Joe Louis Arena. Around Ohio's capital city, groups of fans are meeting to watch the games in bars and restaurants. Others are driving to Detroit to buy tickets, a stunning turnaround after having hundreds of Red Wings fans flood Nationwide Arena for the past few years.

The Red Wings aren't ignoring the Blue Jackets anymore.

"I don't know if it matters how many times you've been here," Detroit coach Mike Babcock said, downplaying his veteran team's experience. "They (the Blue Jackets) thought every year in training camp, 'This year's the year.' But that's how hard the playoffs are to make."

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