COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The longest playoff drought in the American Hockey League is over, and some of the brightest young talent in the Blue Jackets organization helped make it happen.
Cam Atkinson, a product of the Blue Jackets development system and scorer of two monstrous goals in Columbus' 3-1 win in Dallas on Thursday night, was just a middle-schooler when the Springfield Falcons last qualified for the postseason. The year was 2003 and a lot has changed in western Massachusetts since that time, making this Calder Cup quest that much more special for the loyal fans who have made their way to MassMutual Center over the years.
Under the direction of rookie head coach Brad Larsen, the Falcons reinvented the way they do things and it started from the ground up. Larsen made it clear from day one that accountability was going to the primary pillar they would build with; and it wasn't just accountability within the dressing room, he said back in October, it was going to be accountability to the coaches, staff, management and hockey fans in Springfield who were starved for winning hockey.
The Falcons broke training camp with over 30 players due the NHL lockout and had an opportunity to play multiple preseason games - a preparation luxury not often enjoyed in minor league hockey - and Larsen took advantage of the chance to implement his structure and systems right away.
With several of the Blue Jackets' young prospects in the mix to open the season (Matt Calvert, Ryan Johansen, Atkinson, Jonathan Audy-Marchessault, David Savard, Tim Erixon just to name a few), Springfield took off out of the gates and made the most of a home-heavy first month of the season.
And despite losing a huge chunk of their roster to injuries, NHL call-ups and trades, the Falcons kept going and Larsen had the group bought-in to their style. As they watched other AHL teams go through the same situation and drop out of the race, the Falcons didn't let it affect them.
Springfield finished the 2012-13 season with a franchise-record 45 wins and won the Northeast Division with 99 points - 20 points more than second-place Connecticut, which took the brunt of a heated I-91 rivalry series in the regular season - the club's first division title in 15 years.
The Falcons drew a first-round Calder Cup playoffs match-up with the Manchester Monarchs, a team they went 4-1-1 against in the regular season. But as much fun as the regular season was around The Nest, the Falcons know that their next step is what they will be remembered for.
"It's been a fun year from start to finish, and I think the fans and players have really enjoyed it," goaltender Curtis McElhinney told Falcons TV. "We were, for the most part, fairly consistent. Any time we had down periods we seemed to find a way to bounce back. It's a long season, but everybody pulled their way throughout it.
"I think we match up pretty well with them and we had some back-and-forth games with them. It's been a little while since we've seen them, but overall, I think it should be a fun and exciting first round."
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