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.
That’s one of the buzzwords floating around the Blue Jackets locker room as the team prepares for its final two games of the regular season. It’s the word that forward Ryan Johansen used to describe the team’s play throughout a successful road trip that earned the Jackets eight points in five games and positioned them as the eighth seed in the race to the Stanley Cup playoffs.
“We keep surprising ourselves,” Johansen said after the team practiced yesterday at Nationwide Arena. “We look around the room, and there’s always guys stepping up for us, taking charge, and then everybody jumps on.”
Johansen has been one of the players taking charge in the wake of injuries to Artem Anisimov and the always-tenacious Matt Calvert. He scored the game-winning goal against the San Jose Sharks with 97 seconds left in regulation to put the Blue Jackets up 4-3 after Joe Pavelski tied the game at three apiece earlier in the third period.
“For myself, that was the biggest goal of my hockey career,” Johansen said.
Johansen’s game-winner is just one example of how this team has battled through adversity and found ways to win. To him, the relentless hard work of the team is the reason why they can weather the ups and downs of every game despite the ever-changing lines and steady stream of injuries.
The argument can be made that no one works harder than Calvert. The 23-year forward is loved in Columbus for his gritty, energetic style of play. Calvert doesn’t just work hard, he refuses to give up.
Whether it’s a battle along the boards, or a scuffle in front of the net, Calvert plays with the same level of intensity, and his resilience has earned him a new two-year contract extension that was announced Tuesday by the Blue Jackets.
Calvert is also not a stranger to adversity, and in many ways, his story of perseverance mirrors the Blue Jackets’ own journey to the playoffs.
“I was never expected to make it to junior hockey, so I think that gave me a chip on my shoulder, and it just makes me want to go and prove myself every night,” Calvert said after his morning work out yesterday.
While Johansen said it was the team’s resilience has earned them their current position in the standings and the opportunity to make the playoffs, Calvert gave credit to the Blue Jackets’ system and the development of players who play for the club’s AHL affiliate, the Springfield Falcons.
“We got everyone buying in,” Calvert said. “It just shows the depth in our system, and guys want to be here and guys want to earn a spot.”
Calvert mentioned Dalton Prout’s solid play as an example of the team’s depth and commitment to their system. Prout, who was called up to play for the “big squad” in the beginning of March, has been a consistently calm force on the blue line. While Prout has kept his focus on keeping the puck from getting behind Sergei Bobrovsky, his dedication paid off in a more obvious way against the LA Kings last Thursday. Despite the loss, Prout scored his first NHL goal to put the Blue Jackets on the board and tie the game in the second period.
Whatever the reason for it, the recent success has put the team in a position to make the playoffs for the first time since 2009. Still, nothing is guaranteed, and for Vinny Prospal, that fact is more important than anything else at the moment.
“We’ve proven people wrong, but it’s not done yet,” Prospal said. “We are at the point right now where we haven’t really achieved anything.”
While Calvert and Johansen credited the team’s resilience and commitment to the system established by coach Todd Richards and the coaching staff, Prospal was quick to point out that the turnaround in the team’s performance was also helped by learning how to compete in (and win) close games.
“We learned how to win these one-goal games,” Prospal said. “That’s really the difference between good teams and bad teams – the good teams, they find a way to win these one-goal games.”
With those wins came something else, something that could be the most crucial factor of a team’s success in any sport: confidence. Without confidence, no one believes. According to Prospal, this team’s confidence has not only grown, it has snowballed.
They say success is 90 percent attitude and 10 percent aptitude. Hockey may be a little more complicated than that, but the various reasons that Calvert, Johansen, and Prospal attribute to the team’s success with battling adversity and finding a way to win provide a clear message that transcends the game on the ice:
Work hard, believe, and good things will happen.
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.
It's not just that they're doing it. It's how they're doing it.
One would imagine that rival Western Conference fans watched intently as the San Jose Sharks erased a 3-1 deficit in the third period and stormed back to tie the Blue Jackets. The Shark Tank was rocking, all the momentum was in the home team's favor and the Sharks looked the part of a team that (pardon me) smelled blood in the water.
But as the Blue Jackets have done time and time again - almost to the point where you expect it - they shrugged off a game-tying goal by Joe Pavelski and got right back to work.
The big-time finish from Ryan Johansen on the game-winner with 97 seconds left in the third period was the cherry on top of a Sunday sundae that was filled with ebbs, flows and turbulence but what happened after the Pavelski goal can't be ignored. Rather than sit back and let the Sharks continue to attack, the Blue Jackets stuck to their guns and got the puck in deep to re-establish their forecheck.
In watching Johansen's goal on replay, the one thing that stands out is the pressure. How many times have we seen teams in the NHL (especially in a playoff race where the loser point is so coveted) lock the doors and get to overtime, making the final minutes of regulation into a good time to change the laundry over? The Blue Jackets weren't having any of it, and sent two men in on the puck, resulting in a crushing turnover by - guess who - Pavelski.
6:30 A.M. -- GAME DAY SUNDAY: Anything better than a beautiful Sunday morning *and* knowing it's a Blue Jackets game day? You'd be hard-pressed to find it, so we're here to get you prepped for a humongous game tonight at HP Pavilion, or "the Shark Tank," as the kids call it.
Tonight's game is the third of three this season between the Sharks and Blue Jackets, and if you need caught up, the first two were convincing wins for Columbus.
Highlights? You betcha.