While always holding the benefit of hindsight, the consensus among Blue Jackets players was that had the season not ended when it did, it had the chance to be special.
Heading down the stretch, this was a club that posted a 19-5-4 record since Mar. 1 and went from last place into the thick of a playoff race. The Blue Jackets played their best hockey when it counted, but unfortunately, they came up one point shot of the second playoff berth in franchise history.
But one positive was to end the season the way they did: in front of a sold-out Nationwide Arena with an atmosphere unlike any they've experienced in Columbus. That was the common refrain coming from the players as they cleaned out lockers, went through exit physicals and interviews before heading into the offseason today.
The emotions were still very raw from last night's extreme high to extreme low in about 10 minutes, RJ Umberger said, and the most difficult part was balancing how proud they were with their late-season run with the disappointment of not getting the job done.
At the very least, Umberger said, the Blue Jackets established a standard of going into every game with an expectation of winning.
"As a group, we learned how to win hockey games," Umberger said. "I think we have a foundation of how we want to play here, a work ethic, and a group that's shared a lot together this year. I think the majority of us will be back, and I think it's a great foundation to build off of."
Facing a must-win game in what is sure to be a sold-out and rocking Nationwide Arena, the Blue Jackets will receive one more boost tonight.
Artem Anisimov returns to the Columbus lineup after missing five games with an upper body injury, both the player and coach Todd Richards confirmed this morning. Anisimov had been skating by himself while the team was on its road trip, and took the ice for the morning skate today with his teammates for the first time since his injury.
It's been a frustrating time for the 24-year-old Russian since he received a hit to the head from Minnesota forward Charlie Coyle less than 30 seconds in the Blue Jackets' 3-2 shootout win on Apr. 13 at Xcel Energy Center. Despite Coyle not receiving any supplementary discipline from the NHL's Department of Player Safety, the club's play in the meantime has made the recovery period a bit easier to handle.
The Blue Jackets went 5-1-0 on the two-week trip, giving themselves an opportunity to qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time in four years and the second time in franchise history.
The "help" that the Blue Jackets had been waiting for finally arrived last night, as the Edmonton Oilers crashed the Minnesota Wild's party on home ice and walked away with a convincing 6-1 win in St. Paul. The Wild had an opportunity to win the game and clinch a playoff spot, but their season will also come down to the final day. A win for Minnesota in Colorado tonight puts them in the playoffs, but if they were to lose in any fashion, the Blue Jackets can jump them with two points.
Detroit closes out its season in Dallas tonight, meaning a Red Wings victory is also good for a playoff spot for the 22nd consecutive season. If the Red Wings falter - and they have to lose in regulation - a Columbus win over Nashville puts the Jackets in the postseason.
Since we're all pretty horrible at math, we'll continue to work at this throughout the day and provide all the scenarios for you. But, as you've come to expect, we will have all game day news covered on the CBJ game day blog - so keep it tuned right here, become one with the refresh button, and hang on for the ride.
The Blue Jackets are moving quickly to solidify their core group of players, and Cam Atkinson could not be happier to be part of it.
Less than 24 hours after scoring two huge goals in a 3-1 Columbus win in Dallas that kept their playoff hopes alive, Atkinson signed a two-year extension that makes him the third Blue Jacket to do so since the April 3 trade deadline (following Mark Letestu and Matt Calvert). The 23-year-old started the season on a red-hot pace with the Springfield Falcons, and once recalled to Columbus following the NHL lockout, worked his way into a prominent role with the Blue Jackets.
His eight goals and eight assists in 34 games this season have, for the most part, been key goals in hockey games. Considering the reputation Atkinson built for scoring clutch goals while at Boston College, it's not much of a surprise but he hopes it's just the tip of iceberg in his young NHL career.
"I'm so excited to be part of this group for the next two years and build on the good things we've done so far," Atkinson told BlueJackets.com. "I know it sounds cliche and everyone keeps saying it, but it's so true. The camaraderie and trust that we've built with each other is amazing."
Can we just fast-forward to Saturday already?
These Blue Jackets must have felt cornered for as often as their backs have been against the wall, but as they've shown so many times this season, they're awfully rich in the intangibles department. In a must-win game last night in Dallas, they rode an emotional roller coaster through a game that felt like three different games: a fast-moving first period, a Stars-dominated second period and a third period best summed up by "come on, clock, tick faster."
When Mark Letestu cranked the game-winning goal past Kari Lehtonen seven minutes into the third period, you could almost feel the collective exhale from a Blue Jackets fanbase that was on the edge of its seat (and scoreboard watching) all night long. The Stars - who knew after the second period that their postseason hopes were over, according to coach Glen Gulutzan - didn't have the same zip to their game in the third period but obviously, the circumstances were understandable.
But that's not to take anything away from the Blue Jackets, who had to dig deep and get the job done the hard way once again. In the sixth game of a road trip that was likey the tipping point of their season, the Jackets took it one game at a time and fly home to Columbus with a 5-1-0 record on the trip - keeping them squarely in the hunt with only the weekend left to be played.
6:30 A.M. -- HELLLLLLLO, THURSDAY! Raise your hand if you didn't need any additional motivation to get out of bed this morning. (waits patiently)
Alright, so looks like that was just me. I won't hold it against any of you.
In case you hadn't heard, the Blue Jackets have quite a hockey game on tap tonight in Dallas. They're only three points ahead of the Stars entering tonight's game at American Airlines Center and each club has two games remaining, including tonight. Needless to say, this is one of those big-time "swing" games that will greatly help the winner in its quest for the postseason.
Per usual, we'll have all the latest game day happenings right here on the appropriately-named game day blog. Stay tuned for lineup news from both the Jackets and Stars, starting goaltenders, photos, video interviews from our pals at Jackets TV and much more.
Say it with me: let's go Jackets.
Taylor or Tyler? Hedman or Tavares? Yakupov or Murray?
Pre-draft drama in the National Hockey League is at its most entertaining and unpredictable point when there is a legitimate logjam of talent atop the board, and NHL Central Scouting's final rankings help get the conversation started. All 30 teams in the league are analyzed, discussed and analyzed some more between now and draft day, making for an exciting two months of debate leading up to the draft.
The 2013 final rankings - released today - aim to paint a clearer picture heading into the draft of which players are expected to go high in the draft order while breaking them down into four primary categories: North American skaters, North American goaltenders, European skaters and European goaltenders.
Topping the list of North American skaters is Portland Winterhawks defenseman Seth Jones, better known as the guy everyone's talking about as a potential No. 1 overall pick. He's a top-pairing defenseman who can play both ends of the rink, and recently represented gold medal-winning Team USA at the World Junior tournament in Ufa, Russia.
At 6-foot-3 and 205 lbs., many think Jones is on the verge of being able to play in the NHL, and he already proved his ability to play well on a big stage at the World Junior.
Ryan Murray almost forgot what it was like to skate with people other than himself.
For the last five months, though, he's endured a long and difficult road to recovery after a serious shoulder injury ended his season. At the time, he was a star defenseman for the Everett Silvertips (WHL), but there stood a chance that Murray could have been traded to a contender before the league's trading deadline.
That could have meant another opportunity to represent Canada at the World Junior Hockey Championship, or a run at the Mastercard Memorial Cup - something he didn't get to experience in a decorated junior hockey career. But for Murray, it's all in the past now and the light at the end of the tunnel gets brighter by the day.
Another important and exciting step in his rehabilitation process took place today, when the 19-year-old stepped on to Nationwide Arena ice with 10 of the Blue Jackets for an optional practice. It wasn't anything major or too involved - just a few drills and shooting some pucks here and there - but merely being on the ice with familiar faces was something Murray was longingly looking forward to.
It's been a lonely feeling at times, he admitted, skating by himself or with a strength coach nearby. But today's practice wasn't as much about progress as it was what comes along with it - being able to spend on-ice time in a "team" setting for the first time since his November injury.
It has become fairly evident these past few months that the future is bright in Columbus, and now, the pieces are starting to fall into place.
Matt Calvert, who was in the midst of a breakout season in the National Hockey League before suffering a broken finger last week in Los Angeles, inked a new two-year contract extension today and is set up to be part of the Blue Jackets core group in the years to come.
The 23-year-old native of Brandon, Manitoba was a fifth-round pick of former GM Scott Howson and got off to a fast start in 2011, scoring a hat trick against the Phoenix Coyotes and helping the team in a late-season playoff push.
Despite struggling in his second pro season in 2011-12, Calvert went to Springfield (AHL) and was determined to return to Columbus a different and more rounded player. He played a lot of minutes with the Falcons and was their best forward to start this season before the NHL lockout ended, and when recalled to the Blue Jackets in January, he stepped right into the lineup and proved to coach Todd Richards that he could play in all situations and on any line.
One of the most tired cliches used in sports is that of a team playing with a "chip on its shoulder."
Sure, we get what it means (by mere virtue of hearing it repeated so often) but rarely do we see it entrenched in the identity of a team - but quite frankly, these Blue Jackets have played with a figurative glacier on their shoulder.
I often think back to a couple of months ago when the Blue Jackets were a frustrated group, sitting in last place with a 5-12-2 record and on the wrong side of too many one-goal decisions. The few mistakes they made found a way into the back of their net, the margin for error was microscopic and results were few and far between.
But then something changed, something ignited them and galvanized them. And along the way, there are certain moments that stand out as defining junctures.
A week after Jarmo Kekalainen took over as GM, Vinny Prospal scored one of the season's most memorable goals in the final 30 seconds at Joe Louis Arena, giving the Blue Jackets their first win in four games. Their confidence began to swell, and a couple of weeks later, they swept a four-game home stand at Nationwide Arena and began a 12-game points streak that was the beginning of this magical run they're on.
Not long after that it was Jack Johnson, sitting in his locker stall answering questions after one of those wins and being asked by a reporter if he knew this team "wasn't supposed to be winning games" in such a fashion.
"I don't really care what the experts think," he said with a matter-of-fact tone.
As the Blue Jackets embark on their most exciting and anticipated week in quite some time, it's been made pretty clear that they aren't particularly interested in following along with some predetermined fate. They hold a 17-5-5 record in their last 27 games and won four of five games on a recently-completed road trip that encompassed nine days, five games and three time zones in some of the most hostile buildings in the NHL.
It's become less about proving others wrong and more about proving themselves right.