Playoff fever has finally hit Columbus and no one is happier than Blue Jackets coach Ken Hitchcock.
“We’ve been in playoff fever for a month now and the fans have come out in droves,” Hitchcock said Wednesday on a conference call. “The building is packed, we’re into standing room.
“It feels like any good midwest city, whether it’s Canadian or American, about sports right now. It’s the topic of conversation everywhere you go. And it’s great to see where we’ve come from – from basic apathy at the start of the year to where we’re at now.”
The Blue Jackets, now in their ninth year of existence, are the only current NHL club that has never made the playoffs, but they are in strong position to end that drought with a 38-28-7 record and 83 points going into the final nine games of the regular season. They have already set teams records for wins and points.
Much of it has to do with the brilliant goaltending of rookie-of-the-year candidate Steve Mason, whose 2.22 goals-against average is second only to Boston’s Tim Thomas at 2.11.
General manager Scott Howson’s acquisition of veterans like Kristian Huselius, R.J. Umberger and more recently Antoine Vermette has at last given star scorer Rick Nash a supporting cast.
“I think the people see there’s an identity to this team that’s not been here before,” said Hitchcock.
The Western Conference playoff race is a crowded affair. At the moment, there are six clubs battling at close quarters for the lower three positions, with Columbus, Edmonton and Anaheim in and Nashville, St. Louis and Minnesota just out. Dallas, despite its key injuries, could also still make it.
“I think every player in that room knows we’re not even close to getting the job done,” the third-year Jackets coach said. “There are these big bears looming out there.
“To me, this is all about hunger. You can see the teams that are really hungry right now. You can see it in St. Louis, Nashville, us, Anaheim. It comes down to hunger – what are the most uncomfortable things you can do to help your team reach their level of success.
“I know how well we’ll have to play to beat these teams. I know there are a lot of teams in this mix right now, but there’s a certain hunger in some teams that you can vividly see – teams that want this thing really, really badly.”
Hitchcock has gone through many playoff races in his earlier stints in Philadelphia and Dallas, and he won a Stanley Cup with the Stars in 1999, but it’s all new to many of his current players.
He said a key is keeping his team focused only on the next game it plays, in this case, a meeting with the Calgary Flames on Thursday night. He calls it “keeping the train on the track” because, for all their success, including a 14-5-1 run in their last 20, they remain only five points ahead of the ninth-place club.
But for Hitchcock, this is not stress, it’s fun.
“Closeness in points is one thing, but the games are a lot of fun to watch,” he said. “They’re like any good first-round playoff game, and you see three or four of these a night now.
“Players making sacrifices, great plays, the sense of urgency. If you’re a fan, you’re getting every nickel’s worth.”
Hitchcock picked up his 500th career victory on Feb. 19 when the Jackets beat Toronto 4-3, but surprisingly, he has never won the Jack Adams Trophy as coach of the year. He was runner-up to Ted Nolan in 1997.
If he gets the Blue Jackets into the playoffs, he’ll surely draw votes, although there are other strong candidates this season, including Claude Julien in Boston, Todd McLellan in San Jose, Mike Babcock in Detroit or Mike Keenan in Calgary.
“Everything for me is getting back to the dance,” said Hitchcock. “That’s the whole focus for me.
“The rest of the stuff. . . you know what I’m like. It (the award) ends up on a darn shelf somewhere, or in a closet. I probably don’t pay enough respect to that stuff.
“The players have put so much into this season, I want them to get the reward of playing in a seven-game series.”