COLUMBUS, Ohio – Todd Richards got up on Sunday morning and the sun didn't come out. He wasn't surprised.
“In a lot of different ways it was raining,” the Columbus Blue Jackets' coach said.
A day after barely missing the playoffs, Columbus players, management and coaching staff were pleased with their strong finish while distraught they didn't accomplish their main goal.
“There's pride and disappointment all wrapped up together,” Richards said. “I'm real proud of the team, the way they played, where we were at, where we were able to get to. But there's a huge disappointment that we came up one point short. It takes a lot of the flair out of the good things you were able to do.”
The Blue Jackets finished tied for eighth in the Western Conference with Minnesota, but were bumped out of the playoffs on a tiebreaker as the Wild had more regulation and overtime victories.
So Minnesota, which stumbled to the finish line while the Blue Jackets won eight of their final nine games, will take on Chicago in the first round.
A crowd of 19,000 roared for most of Saturday night's 3-1 victory over Nashville, then left quietly after finding out their team fell short.
The players vowed to be better next year.
“Of course we had a pretty good season,” goalie Sergei Bobrovsky said. “We have to just keep going.”
Columbus was 5-12-2 and worst in the NHL in late February. Almost everyone figured this was another lost season. The Blue Jackets were far and away the worst team in the league a year ago, and that was even before they met the demand of their best player, Rick Nash, and traded him away to the New York Rangers.
“All the so-called experts picked us to finish dead last,” defenceman Jack Johnson said. “It's kind of the old thing, when someone says you can't do it you're determined to prove them wrong.”
Something changed. The club went on a franchise-record 12-game points streak (8-0-4). Later, after pulling within reach of the top eight spots in the conference, the Blue Jackets went 5-1-0 on a treacherous six-game road trip over four time zones and 12 days.
Then they overcame a 1-0 deficit midway through the final period in their regular-season finale on Saturday with three goals to thrill a capacity crowd.
After their anemic start, they went 19-5-5 to turn the perception of the team around.
“The way we played, it opened the eyes of a lot of people in this league who realized we're not a team that's going to be stepped on anymore,” forward Nick Foligno said. “We're a team that's going to try to be one of the elite teams in the league. We've proven that.”
They did it with a gritty game based on defence. Sergei Bobrovsky, picked up from Philadelphia last summer for three middling draft picks, became a star in net. After a slow start, he finished 21-11-6 with a 2.00 goals-against average and a .932 save percentage. He will likely get strong consideration for the Vezina Trophy, given to the best goalie in the NHL.
Youngsters such as forechecking forward Matt Calvert (9 goals, 7 assists), energetic Cam Atkinson (8 goals, 8 assists) and blossoming Ryan Johansen (5 goals, 7 assists) injected some life into an offence that was missing Nash's typical 20-30 goals. Newcomers Marian Gaborik, acquired at the deadline, Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov (who came over in the Nash deal) and veteran blueliner Adrian Aucoin brought some toughness and resilience. Mark Letestu had a career year (13 goals, 14 assists) and rookie Dalton Prout (+15 in 28 games) starred down the stretch.
It wasn't just how the Blue Jackets seemed to get every loose puck and outhustle teams, but that—unlike their predecessors—they never seemed to give up. They came from behind to win 12 games, tying Anaheim for the most in the league.
Now they want even more.
“Anyone who looks at the season as a success, I don't think is the right person that we need around here,” Dubinsky said. “We made steps in the right direction to be successful, but in the end we didn't get to the dance and we didn't give ourselves a chance to win a championship. Unless we demand that of ourselves and of this organization, we're just going to sell ourselves short.”
Director of hockey operations John Davidson and general manager Jarmo Kekalainen have vowed they'll add more offence. The club has three first-round draft picks and Kekalainen said he only will take prospects who want to challenge for a spot on the big club right away.
In many ways, this doesn't sound anything like the defeatist team that seldom played a meaningful regular-season game after the All-Star break and has never won a playoff game (0-4 in its one appearance in 2009).
The city of Columbus and Blue Jackets fans appreciated the effort.
Johnson, a Michigan grad no less, was out to dinner recently with several teammates in Ohio State's hometown.
“People just came up to us and said, 'Hey, thanks for everything you're doing,'” Johnson said. “It really kind of took me aback, because I've never experienced anything like that. You realize that people genuinely care about this team and they're excited about it.”
Kekalainen was hired midway through the year as GM to replace the fired Scott Howson, who made most of the moves to stock the current Blue Jackets.
Kekalainen, Richards and Davidson met with the players on Sunday before they took a break to catch their breaths after a crazy, volatile playoff race.
Kekalainen said he had goose bumps from the loud and boisterous crowd on Saturday night. But he promised that the close call with the playoffs wasn't enough.
“I realize that we still have a lot of work to do,” he said. “I certainly don't want anybody to think that we've arrived somewhere now. Or that where we are, this is great.
“It's a good first step for us.”
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