COLUMBUS, Ohio – Cam Atkinson believes the Columbus Blue Jackets are getting better.
But he’s also realizes just how far they have to go.
“We got a little taste of what we wanted in making the playoffs,” the 24-year-old winger said the day after the Blue Jackets were eliminated in Game 6 of their wild first-round series with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“We just won two games. It’s a stepping stone.”
For years an NHL doormat, the Blue Jackets are both inspired and also realistic after the best season in the franchise’s mostly rocky 13 seasons.
“I heard on the radio the other day that Game 4 is one of the great sports moments in this city,” forward Mark Letestu said, referring to a three-goal comeback at home that was capped by a last-minute tying goal in regulation and Nick Foligno’s overtime winner.
“I think there’s a lot more that we can give. We can give series victories and further cement the Blue Jackets in the hearts of people here. That’s what’s on guys minds right now.”
It was a season of firsts for the Blue Jackets, who have spent much of their existence toward the bottom of the NHL standings.
They set club records with 43 regular-season wins, 21 road victories, 93 points and 231 goals.
They had made the playoffs just once previously and their stay lasted only four games, all losses.
But one of the league’s youngest teams overcame a 5-10-0 start with a strong finish to clinch a playoff spot.
Then, they won Games 2 and 4 against the Penguins with stirring comebacks.
In Monday night’s Game 6, they were outclassed early and trailed 4-0 heading into the final period before scoring three goals in a 4:52 span to energize a crowd of 19,189 that stood and roared throughout the final minutes.
The 4-3 defeat left them disappointed, but most will likely only remember the Jackets scrambling at the finish for a possible tying goal while the Penguins struggled to hold them off.
“The building was rocking,” defenceman Jack Johnson said. “But there’s going to be a lot more and better times ahead.”
Beyond everything else they accomplished, they gave their patient followers some hope.
Over their past 111 games, the Blue Jackets are 62-37-12—far and away the best such span in the franchise’s history, and exceeded by only seven other teams in the league.
“It’s been great to see where we came from halfway through last season to where we are now and how excited the city gets,” said fourth-line centre Derek MacKenzie, an unrestricted free agent this summer.
“We’ve already talked about that. What would it be like if we could have a great start? Is that arena going to be like that all season long? We sure hope so.”
The Blue Jackets’ poor history has become, well, old news.
“Everybody hears about the past,” said rookie defenceman Ryan Murray, taken No. 2 in the 2012 draft.
“It hasn’t been very good. Everybody that’s here now just wants to change that, to change the culture and bring in more fans and change the city into a hockey town.”
Judging from the capacity crowds down the stretch and in the playoffs, and the excitement generated around this city of 787,000.
For the past few weeks, the Blue Jackets have been the talk of the town, pulling off a rare coup by bumping Ohio State football off the front page of the local newspaper.
Now that the Blue Jackets have stamped themselves as a good team, the hard part is getting better.
“I don’t think we’re going to catch anybody by surprise anymore,” defenceman James Wisniewski said. “Everybody realizes the identity that we’ve created here, that it’s going to be a hard-fought game and that they’re going to have to bring their ‘A’ game or we’re going to run them out of the building.”
Many of the Blue Jackets had already shaved off their playoff beards before meetings with the coaching staff on Tuesday morning. Several of the younger players were barely able to grow one.
So now a team that didn’t know what it was missing when it didn’t make the playoffs is disappointed that it has been eliminated.
“I’ll be watching (the playoffs) for sure,” Atkinson said. “What else is there to do now? You wish you could be playing.”