The Blue Jackets came a point shy of a Stanley Cup playoff berth after a remarkable run to end the regular season, but they wouldn't have been in contention without a goaltender who came up big for them like clockwork.
At the NHL Draft in Pittsburgh last June, Columbus paid a price of only draft picks to acquire 24-year-old Sergei Bobrovsky, a promising young netminder who saw his opportunity for playing time evaporate with the signing of a big-name free agent. He welcomed a new beginning with the Blue Jackets, and in a short period of time, authored quite a story along with his teammates who nearly shocked the hockey world.
More affectionately known as "Bob," Bobrovsky has quickly become a household name in Columbus and had his own "Top 10" highlight reel on the NHL Network this season.
Bobrovsky was named a finalist for the Vezina Trophy this morning, annually awarded to the player voted to be the league's best goaltender by NHL general managers. The award winner is usually announced at the NHL awards ceremony in Las Vegas, but due to a compressed schedule, the league will announce the winner during the Stanley Cup Final.
The other finalists for the Vezina Trophy are Antti Niemi of the San Jose Sharks (who just eliminated the Vancouver Canucks in a four-game sweep last night) and Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers.
One of the most common questions on exit day at Nationwide Arena was whether Blue Jackets players were headed to the IIHF World Hockey Championships in Stockholm and Helsinki - and one of the most common answers was "no."
Several of those players invited or under consideration from their national teams (Cam Atkinson, Jack Johnson for Team USA among them) declined to participate in this year's tournament for the purpose of getting healthy after injuries piled up down the stretch of an intense playoff run. But two Blue Jackets - Artem Anisimov and Fedor Tyutin - accepted invites from their native Russia and are taking part in the tournament.
They are the only Blue Jackets in this year's tournament after a handful were involved a year ago, namely Johnson - who served as captain for the United States on a squad that also included Atkinson after his rookie NHL season.
Marian Gaborik, acquired by Columbus at the NHL trading deadline in a blockbuster deal, had committed to play for Slovakia at the World Championships but experienced abdominal discomfort near the end of the season.
Gaborik visited a specialist in Philadelphia last week and it was determined that surgery was the best option, taking him out of the Worlds with a 3-4 week recovery period.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the regular column of Rob Mixer, writer for BlueJackets.com. You can follow Rob on Twitter (@RobMixer) and follow his work on the CBJ Today blog.
It was the first day of March and I was posted up at one of our Buffalo Wild Wings viewing parties - most likely making short work of some pickle chips - when a friend texted me to let me know these were the "same old Jackets."
Not only did that phrase make my blood boil, I was flabbergasted in reading it and couldn't figure out why my friend would say this. Had he watched the game, a 4-3 overtime loss at the United Center in Chicago when the Blue Jackets' sixth defenseman arrived in an airport cab halfway through the first period? Did he not understand the collective resolve that this club had shown despite a number of one-goal losses?
At the time, none of this mattered and I was a little ticked off. I simply replied: "You're wrong. Just wait."
Over the next few weeks, the image of that text message replayed in my head but it no longer upset me. It made me think and ponder why my friend felt that way about a team that was obviously different than those which came before it. As someone who was born and raised in this wonderful city, I was confident that I was right but I was also *really* hoping that I would eventually be right.
And I wasn't naive enough to gloss over the obvious (a 5-12-2 record and last place in the Western Conference at the time), of course, but I really wanted to figure out if said friend was the only person who had those feelings - and if he wasn't, then why?
This year's Scotiabank NHL Draft Lottery was largely uneventful...until the final two spots in the order.
With an 18.8 percent change leap frog over the Florida Panthers (owners of the lottery's best odds at 25 percent), the Colorado Avalanche won the lottery and will select No. 1 overall at the 2013 NHL Draft, to be held June 30 at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. Widely considered to be the "Seth Jones sweepstakes," the Avalanche get the opportunity to select the 18-year-old defense prospect who grew up playing hockey in the Mile High City.
The Blue Jackets, owners of three total first-round picks in this year's draft after the Rick Nash and Jeff Carter trades, are new owners of the 14th overall pick in the first round. The final order will be determined upon conclusion of the Stanley Cup playoffs, which begin with first-round series on Tuesday night.
Here's a brief breakdown of the Blue Jackets' history in the draft lottery:
Under this system, the Blue Jackets had the most regular-season points and smallest chance (0.5%) of winning the lottery. The percentage chance of being selected in the 2013 Scotiabank Draft Lottery was as follows, based on team finish: Florida (25.0 pct.), Colorado (18.8 pct.), Tampa Bay (14.2 pct.), Nashville (10.7 pct.), Carolina (8.1 pct.), Calgary (6.2 pct.), Edmonton (4.7 pct.), Buffalo (3.6 pct.), New Jersey (2.7 pct.), Dallas (2.1 pct.), Philadelphia (1.5 pct.), Phoenix (1.1 pct.), Winnipeg (0.8 pct.) and COLUMBUS (0.5 pct.).
Much of the credit surrounding the Blue Jackets' dramatic turnaround in 2012-13 rightfully goes to the players in the dressing room - namely goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky - but the players were quick to point out another deserving party.
When the season could have easily gone off the rails in late February with the Blue Jackets sporting a 5-12-2 record and occupying last place in the Western Conference, the club needed a steady hand that could reinforce the positives from the first month of the season. The Blue Jackets found themselves on the wrong end of seemingly countless one-goal games and were gripping the sticks tight, but they found a way through it.
James Wisniewski, a guy who has been around the NHL for a few years and played for different kinds of coaches, was particularly impressed with how positive and supportive Todd Richards and his coaching staff were through some of the roughest patches of the season.
Rather than making drastic changes and looking for a shake-up, Richards kept morale high and kept the group focused on one game at a time. As is well-known by now, the Blue Jackets used that approach to climb back into the playoff picture and leave the basement faster than a kid scared of the dark.
"They really just let us be the group that we had, and formed and molded their coaching styles to what we had," Wisniewski said. "You can ask anyone: we obviously weren't the most talented group on the ice, but you couldn't beat our work ethic and that just showed we really were a blue-collared, hard-working team."
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."
Still, the players insist that this game is just like any other.
“We’ve been in this position pretty much every game for the past month,” Marian Gaborik said. “We’re just going to take it shift by shift.”
Shift by shift, period by period, game by game. That has been the mentality for the Blue Jackets this season. According to Vinny Prospal, that mentality has not changed heading into tonight’s game, saying that they’re not worried about the playoffs or how Detroit and Minnesota play tonight.
“You don’t worry about the outside stuff – you worry about the game you have to play,” he said. “We’re looking at tonight’s game as the most important game of the season for us.”
That's old news if you've been following the team over the past couple of months. Jackets coach Todd Richards insisted on calling every game the "next most important game." It was a sentiment that the players have echoed after every morning skate, every win, and every loss since the beginning of March.
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.