"One hell of a sprint" awaits the Blue Jackets
This is the road ahead for the Blue Jackets: 24 games, 48 days, and one point separating them from a second playoff berth in franchise history.
They know that a pre-Olympics speed bump in California makes things a bit more difficult, as they were once inside the "playoff bar" but now must leap a team or two to get back on the right side of that ledger. But a three-week break for the Olympics provided those not headed to Sochi with a chance to hit the reset button, nurse nagging injuries and get focused for a furious stretch that will essentially be filled with playoff games every night.
The Blue Jackets are one of those teams in a win-at-all-costs situation; they can ill afford to let points slip away and especially so against Metropolitan Division opponents. Their first game back from the break, Thursday night against the New Jersey Devils, is one of the four-point variety that represents a potentially large swing in the standings.
And if you ask the players in the room - many of whom have been through this type of playoff drive before - this time of year is not as much about pressure as it is about opportunity.
"It's kind of like a tied game going into the third period," Brandon Dubinsky told BlueJackets.com. "The season is kind of a marathon when it starts out and you're winning one, losing one here and there, but now, time's running short for everyone. You can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and you look at the amount of work we've put in to get to this point...we have to be ready to go right out of the gate here.
"Our focus has to be to start racking up some points here because every one is so important. The break was great for our group at the time; we were playing a lot of games, guys were banged up, tired. We're excited, geared up and that's the way we've been practicing."
The practices that Dubinsky mentioned, being run collectively by Blue Jackets associate coach Craig Hartsburg, assistant coach Dan Hinote and goaltending coach Ian Clark, have been uptempo, intense and demanding since the break ended last week. A lot of skating, conditioning work, and attention to detail - things that Todd Richards shouldn't have to reinforce to the group once he returns from the Olympics.
Players both young and old said they understand the task at hand, and also know there is little to no margin for error in such a tight playoff race that changes by the day.
"We want to keep moving this thing forward and we're not be satisfied with what we've done so far," rookie defenseman Ryan Murray said. "We have to keep pushing - we're outside the playoffs right now and our No. 1 goal is to secure a spot.
"If you have a bad start after the break, you can really fall behind. We don't want to create a hole for ourselves; we want to pick up where we left off and take advantage of these next 24 games."
Another advantage for the players who remained in Columbus is that the excuses can be tossed out the window. They're rested, rejuvenated and have been back in "hockey mode" for nearly a week. When it's time to depart for Newark on Thursday afternoon, Dubinsky said it will not be difficult to return to business mode - and the urgency of the situation aids that feeling.
"It's all part of being a pro hockey player," Dubinsky said. "Instinctively, I think that once we're preparing to get on that plane and fly to New Jersey, guys know the importance of where we're at, where we need to get to and the amount of time we have to get the job done.
"It's 24 games, seven weeks...it's going to be one hell of a sprint and our guys are rested both mentally and physically. It's a great challenge in front of us and it'll be a lot of fun."