COLUMBUS, Ohio – The Columbus Blue Jackets are in uncharted territory. And it shows all around Nationwide Arena as they prepare for their visit foray into the post-season.
Stanley Cup Playoffs logos are painted onto the ice. The roster has been expanded to include several Syracuse Crunch players, some of whom have to get dressed around chairs in the middle of a crowded dressing room. There are so many players that practice resembles a training camp skate.
And as the team preps to play the defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings, there are subtle differences in practice. Head coach Ken Hitchcock, always a vocal presence, is louder than usual.
“Hard, hard,” Hitchcock screams as his players execute their drills.
Despite the post-season appearance being a first for Columbus (41-31-10 for 92 points, seventh seed in the West), the Jackets’ lineup of experienced veterans and rising young stars appear ready for the challenge awaiting them Thursday night at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena.
“We’re a young franchise but we’re not a young team that’s going to enter the playoff fray,” said Hitchcock, suggesting his team has earned its way in and may as well test themselves against the best in the league.
GM Scott Howson has assembled a team with plenty of playoff experience, including Stanley Cup winners like defenceman Mike Commodore, centre Jason Williams and winger Fredrik Modin. Michael Peca, Raffi Torres and Antoine Vermette, acquired at the trade deadline from Ottawa, have also experienced the final round pressure cooker.
Those core players will join a bevy of youthful talents like Jakub Voracek, goaltender Steve Mason, a Calder Trophy candidate, defenceman Kris Russell and the Jackets’ 24-year-old superstar captain Rick Nash.
The good news is that Columbus has plenty of experience and recent success facing the Red Wings, winning six of 14 meetings over the last two seasons.
“We have had some success against them but this is a new season,” Nash said after Tuesday’s skate. “Whatever happened in the past doesn’t matter anymore.”
Added Manny Malholtra: “We’ve come a long way in terms of knowing how to play this team. But now it’s a whole new ballgame. The playoffs are here. It’s a different brand of hockey, it’s a different intensity level. You can throw away season statistics and season records.”
Still, not many teams in the NHL have been able to accomplish what Columbus has against Detroit. The Jackets played two of their best periods of the season before allowing three third-period goals in a 3-0 loss in Detroit on January 6.
Three weeks later, Nash scored a hat trick goal in overtime to give the Jackets a big 3-2 win. The captain added another hat trick in an 8-2 thumping of Detroit at Joe Louis Arena on March 7.
The Red Wings responded with a 4-0 win in Columbus the last time they met on March 15 at Nationwide.
“I think the game (we won) in Detroit is going to help us immensely,” said Hitchcock. “We played two really good games in Detroit. We played better in the game we lost in the last couple of minutes than we did in the game we won 8-2. That game, more than anything, really solidified our belief that we could play in the building. We had no or limited success (prior to those games).”
Said Peca: “What it means is that we’ve done some things over the course of the schedule to be successful against them. If we can focus on those things and continue to improve on them, and conversely, work on the things that they’ve been able to have success with against us, it should give us an opportunity to get the series in the latter stages.”
The Jackets have emphasized the need to initiate contact, get pucks deep and rack up as many shots as possible on Chris Osgood.
But the biggest key is arguably staying out of the penalty box. Detroit has feasted on the power play against Columbus in past games, scoring three times with the man advantage in its last two wins over the Jackets.
“If you look up and down their lineup, they’re all all-stars,” Nash said of the Red Wings’ special teams unit. “And they have (Tomas) Holmstrom in front. He’s been doing it for years.
“We need to be disciplined.”
Columbus didn’t finish the season well with losses in its last two games. But a shootout win against Chicago in Game 80 secured a playoff berth, leading some to suggest there was a natural letdown after accomplishing the franchise’s most pressing goal.
But any letdown is forgotten. Each player in that jam-packed dressing room can’t wait to get the series underway.
“Detroit’s just a great place to start,” said Peca. “Every time you walk in, it just smells like playoff hockey. It’s an exciting environment and we’ll be looking forward to it.”
Commodore, one half of the shutdown defensive duo with Jan Hejda, said it was the team’s goal to get into the playoffs, something he figures most people believed wouldn’t happen.
Now that the Jackets are there, the goal has changed.
“We would like to win a Stanley Cup,” said Commodore, who sports a tattoo on his ankle commemorating his championship with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006. “We can’t do that without beating Detroit.”
R.J. Umberger, acquired by Columbus last summer, is antsy waiting for the puck to drop in Detroit. A proven playoff performer, he relishes the opportunity to play post-season hockey.
His teammates feel the same.
“There’s no satisfaction in this room,” said Umberger. “We’re anxious again and starving to play.
“The mood’s good.”