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Usual and unsung heroes lead Jackets to postseason

by Stuart Shea

"It's exciting for us. I would have liked to do this my first or second year, but six years in, I'll take it. And now that we're in there, anything can happen."
-- Columbus captain Rick Nash

CHICAGO -- The Columbus Blue Jackets did it the hard way.

Seeking their first playoff berth in a history that started with the 2000-01 season, Columbus invaded Chicago's United Center and came back from 2-0 and 3-2 deficits to defeat the Blackhawks 4-3 in a shootout. The win leads to a sweet fact: the Jackets will play more than 82 games this season.

In Columbus' first season, Ron Tugnutt was the team's primary goalie. Their leading point-scorer was journeyman Geoff Sanderson. Suffice it to say that things have changed for the franchise. Only Rostislav Klesla remains from that first Blue Jackets team, and he was out Wednesday with a strained oblique muscle.

The Jackets clinched the spot just by tying Chicago at the end of regulation, but that wasn't enough; they held the Hawks scoreless both in the overtime and in the shootout to win in one of the NHL's toughest buildings.

Wednesday's list of heroes included the usual names: Center Rick Nash scored goal No. 39 to knot the score with just 5:30 left in the third, while rookie goalie Steve Mason stopped Martin Havlat three times in the overtime period.

Yet, some role players shined. Defenseman Fedor Tyutin scored the winning goal in the shootout -- the first shootout attempt of his career -- with a brilliant deke on Hawks goalie Nikolai Khabibulin. Fellow blueliner Jan Hejda returned from a first-period collision and a nasty cut on his mouth that required stitches. Newly acquired center Antoine Vermette scored and assisted on the Jackets' two second-period tallies.

When the Jackets began playing in 2000, the 16-year-old Nash was in the OHL, scoring 31 goals in 58 games for the London Knights. Wednesday night, he played an outstanding game against a top team in a hostile arena.

Stopped by Khabibulin on a first-period penalty shot, and the victim of an own-goal later in the period when he accidentally deflected a puck behind Mason, Nash came back in the third period with an fantastic goal that combined speed, strength, stickhandling and the unstoppable determination that marks the NHL's true stars.

"It's exciting for us," Nash said of his team's first playoff berth. "I would have liked to do this my first or second year, but six years in, I'll take it. And now that we're in there, anything can happen."

Nash was especially happy to clinch against a tough crowd in Chicago. "With them setting their attendance record and all, and a great city, a great team, it's good to win. It's always nice to quiet a loud crowd.

"Now the fun part starts."

Mason, who was 12 years old in 2000, came out to face the press after yet another stellar effort in which he stopped 24 of 27 shots and gave his team a chance to come back and win.

"It's a great feeling for the city of Columbus and great to present them with a team they can be proud of," said Mason. "But there's still a ton of work to be done to ensure that we have a successful season."

Asked if he's reflected yet on what this year has meant to him, as a rookie leading the NHL in shutouts and second in goals-against average, he noted, "Not really. I'll take time this summer to look back on things, but right now I haven't taken the time to sit back. Right now this is something I'm proud of, to be part of the team that's gotten this franchise to the playoffs."

Hejda gave blood and more Wednesday night, taking a nasty blow to the left side of his mouth, near where he had received a severe cut last season. But after being stitched up, he returned to play the final two periods and help save his club's defense.

"I didn't feel very good, but with only two games left, I want to play," Hejda said. "I don't know how many stitches I got. A lot of them. It's hard to play with five defensemen, especially against Chicago, so I needed to play tonight.

"The playoffs are exactly what we wanted; it's a nice feeling. From the start of the season to right now, we're glad that we did it ... but we can't stop now."
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