Bright Future Lies Ahead for Upcoming Jackets
At the conclusion of the Columbus Blue Jackets first foray into the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the players had to feel like victims of a stabbing.
For four games, the Jackets absorbed blow after blow from the Detroit Red Wings, none more cruel then Johan Franzen's series-clinching power-play goal in the final minute of game 4 at Nationwide Arena.
But as the rival players lined up to shake hands at the conclusion of the 6-5 thriller, it was as if the entire city of Columbus immediately understood what they had witnessed these last few months. The chant of "Let's Go Jackets," which boomed throughout Nationwide Arena much of the night, was reprised.
"I think the best way to put it is that it's a tough, bitter end to a great year," says defenseman Mike Commodore, noting that his decision to come to Columbus was the right one.
The emotional ride is over. For this season, anyway. Going out in four straight to the defending Stanley Cup champions wasn't the script the Jackets had written but that result aside, the 2008-09 season was one jam-packed with incredible memories and accomplishments.
Some of them were documented on the Nationwide scoreboard Thursday night. It had the unfortunate feel of a Jackets' obituary but regardless, the organization had plenty to be proud of: a record 41 wins, 25 of which came at home, best of any team in the West other than the San Jose Sharks and Wings; 92 points; the first ever postseason appearance; another All-Star nod for Rick Nash, who like many of his teammates, had a career high in points; dominance of the Rookie of the Month awards early in the season; a likely Calder Trophy winner in Steve Mason, who looks to be the National Hockey League's next big thing between the pipes after leading all goalies with 10 shutouts.
The list goes on. But among all of the accomplishments, perhaps the most important and telling from this edition of the Blue Jackets was one that didn't appear in a stat column.
"We had a team this year," says Jason Chimera, a veteran who took the series loss especially hard. "We had a lot of individuals before. This year, everyone played for each other."
"We changed the attitude in here and the culture," adds Commodore. "And I think the fans sensed that. The culture and attitude around town changed. I'm very proud of that.
"That's something that is not very easy to do."
The captain, who's been in Columbus longer than anyone except the lone original Rostislav Klesla, concurs.
"All season, this has been a totally different Blue Jackets team," says Nash. "We've lost games and we've come back, and won big ones, we've been down in games and come back and won.
"It was a great season and we showed character all year."
Head coach Ken Hitchcock says that character was never an issue for the Jackets. They competed virtually every night. After a mediocre start to the season, one in which they had to find chemistry with a load of new faces in the room, Columbus settled down and got to work. Mason took the reins in net, which brought the team to a new level. Young players like Derick Brassard and Jake Voracek thrived. The new additions like Commodore, Fedor Tyutin, Kristian Huselius, Raffi Torres and R.J. Umberger found their groove.
And when the rest of the NHL thought the Blue Jackets would finally roll over and die in March, as if their rise up the standings were a fluke, the team responded with a fantastic run of wins over the league’s best. Down went Detroit, Boston, Pittsburgh and Chicago, all in the same week. But the energy expended in the battle to get to the Big Dance may have been too much, especially against the recharged and refocused Red Wings.
"We got in the playoffs because we competed," Hitchcock said in his Game 4 press conference, his voice still raspy from shouting through four intense games. "We didn't get in because we were the most skilled team. We got in because we played the right way and we were successful because of it. The players bought in, which was really good. But I think our struggle to get in and the intensity and the maxing out, I thought hurt us in the playoffs.
"We knew two months ago it was going to take plus-90 to get in and we knew how tough our schedule was. We had to max out to get here."
A lot of the talk throughout the series has been about the knowledge obtained in the playoff pressure cooker. Hitchcock said after the first two games in Detroit that his players were getting tremendous lessons.
"It was a humbling experience," says Mason. "Obviously, we had some success against Detroit in the regular season but everybody realizes the playoffs are a different level. We have to step our game up.
"As a group, we were a young team and we learned a heckuva lot. We grew as a team. The playoffs were a good experience for this franchise and this city. I think everybody's going to be looking forward to next season."
"It's a huge experience," adds Voracek. "We played against the best team in the NHL. We lost 4-0 but if we played the same way we did tonight, it could have been 2-2.
"It was up and down all season long. It was great, we battled and we got a playoff spot. It was a great year for us, great experience. We have to learn from that."
Hitchcock recalled competing against the Red Wings years ago and how a player like Pavel Datsyuk was someone who could be exposed.
"Look at them now," he says of the Wings. "That's the same thing with us. Some of our guys got challenged and exposed. We found out a lot about our team.
"We're not as good as Detroit but our goal is to get there."
As the Jackets head into the offseason, there is reason for optimism. They have experienced the grind of locking up a playoff spot and now understand the level required to compete once there. The youthful talent in the organization complements a solid roster of veterans assembled by GM Scott Howson. And Mason provides the anchor.
But there are no guarantees when the journey begins again.
"I think the one thing that we have learned over time here is that each year is new," says Hitchcock. "Each year is different and if we expect to be back in the playoffs, that's going to have to be our attitude. We're going to have to be starting new again and not assuming that we're going to have any of the chemistry that we had this year to get us in there.
"And I think if we have that attitude, then we’ll be better."
September can't come fast enough.