Columbus, OH -
By Rick Gethin
The similarities are striking between the Columbus Blue Jackets of this year and two years ago, when they made their first playoff appearance. This season through 59 games they sit at 30-23-6, 66 points. Two years ago through 59 games, they were 30-23-6 for 66 points. With 23 games remaining in the regular season, they have only to win 11 more games to equal the 41 wins they had in the 2008/09 season.
To a fickle fanbase, this would be unacceptable. But, more importantly, it would be unacceptable to the guys in the room. The most striking difference between now and the team of two seasons ago is what’s between their ears. They’ve gained more experience as they’ve matured and are putting it to good use. They don’t let the highs or lows of an 82 game season wear on them. They are playing some of their best hockey right now, and still have a reserve in the tank.
“Statistically, we’re still battling for a playoff spot,” said defenseman Marc Methot. “But, it’s like that for almost the entire Western Conference. Mentally, since that time (08/09 season), we’re gaining confidence as a group. We know now exactly what it takes, especially during this run, to succeed.”
The guys in the room exude a quiet, understated confidence that might not always be visible to the casual observer. They have a certain swagger that they are earning every day. They’ve bought in to the system that head coach Scott Arniel and the rest of the coaching staff have put in place.
“All of the guys have bought in to the new system that we have,” Methot said. “Our coaches don’t rattle very easy, either. They’re very composed behind the bench. They’re all ex-players that know the game in and out. That really translates well into the room and we can bring that back onto the ice. Them being relaxed, especially in tight games, really helps us out. I can’t say it enough, they’ve been doing a great job with us.”
The core of this team is essentially the same as it was under Ken Hitchcock. The difference being that each player knows that they have the opportunity to play by giving 100% each and every day. That was not so under the previous head coach. Playing time seemed to be determined by how much of a veteran you were. For the young guys, this meant riding the pine more often than not.
“I think the young guys have really started to develop,” defenseman Kris Russell said. “I think all of the players since the 2008/09 season have matured. We all have more experience and know what it takes to make the playoffs. It was a huge learning experience.”
“I think any time you have guys like Grant Clitsome and Matt Calvert come up, they provide a spark. But, it’s also the guys in the locker room from day one that weren’t happy with it (losing). We went down that road last year. All the guys are buying in to Arny’s (Scott Arniel) system and it’s making us successful.”
“There’s a time to use our skill and there’s a time to get pucks deep. As of late, we’ve done a great job recognizing which is which. We know when to use the skill and when to get them deep,” said Russell.
The guys have the skill to play the game of hockey on the NHL level. They are learning what it takes between their ears to be successful. With less than a quarter of the season to go, look for them to keep pushing the pace of their play. And, don’t be surprised when they pass the 41 wins in a season mark. They believe they will do it.
The question then becomes, do you?