COLUMBUS, Ohio – James Wisniewski has learned a simple yet valuable lesson in his eight NHL seasons with five different teams.
“Winning is hard. People don’t realize that,” he said. “Losing’s easy.”
That’s why he wants his current team, the Columbus Blue Jackets, to extend their season. They’ve suddenly discovered how to win. And when you’re winning, a lot of problems go away.
There are many reasons why the Blue Jackets won’t make the playoffs, and really only one why they might. Last in the NHL not so terribly long ago, they’ve surprised everyone all season. Why not once more?
A cynic would point out they have too many road games (6) and too few at home (2); that the remaining opponents are daunting; and that there are too many good teams to overcome.
Yet after Tuesday night’s 4-0 victory over San Jose, the young and restless Blue Jackets are just two points behind eighth-place Detroit with eight games left to play.
A franchise that has yet to win a playoff game in its first 11 seasons suddenly has captured the imagination of its fan base. Almost 18,000 showed up for the midweek Sharks game, and most were around at the end, standing and cheering while pinching themselves over what they were witnessing.
“We have eight games left,” newly acquired star forward Marian Gaborik said. “We’re going to keep fighting ’till the end.”
The website sportsclubstats.com measures playoff chances of NHL teams. Its calculations say that if the Blue Jackets win their final eight, they’ll make the post-season for only the second time. If they go 6-2-0 down the stretch, they’ve got a 44 per cent chance of making it in the West.
It sure won’t be easy. After Friday night’s home game with St. Louis, Columbus hits the road for a grueling six-game trip with showdowns at Minnesota, Colorado, Anaheim, Los Angeles, San Jose and Dallas before closing the regular season at home on April 27 against Nashville.
Most of those teams are also in the playoff chase.
But the way John Davidson, the Blue Jackets’ director of hockey operations, looks at it, no matter what happens the club is better off for it.
“If we had kept going and gotten into a situation where there was no pressure on our team for the last six weeks of the season, that’s lost time,” he said. “Wherever this goes we’re going to—for sure—have gotten something out of it, and that’s just the fact that it’s a very good culture, it’s a very good locker room and it’s a team that’s developed because of playing pressure games down the stretch.”
The Blue Jackets had the worst record in the NHL (5-12-2, just 12 points in 19 games) on Feb. 24 after a 1-0 loss at Chicago. Since then, they have gone 12-4-5 (29 points in 21 games) and have rapidly climbed into contention.
Others are noticing.
“They’re fighting for their lives and they’re playing a real simple game,” Anaheim forward Andrew Cogliano said. “They’re tough to play against. They move the puck really quickly and they’ve got big defencemen.”
Also, they have the hottest goaltender in the league in Sergei Bobrovsky, an enigma in Philadelphia before he was picked up by fired Columbus GM Scott Howson for a second- and two fourth-round draft picks last summer.
The skinny Russian did not have a shutout in the first 98 games of his career, but he’s had four in the last 15. He was just 3-6-3 with a .898 save percentage while allowing 2.90 goals a game in January and February. Since then, though, he is 11-4-3, has stopped 95 per cent of the shots he’s seen and is allowing a microscopic 1.49 goals a game.
Not exactly verbose, about everything Bobrovsky says comes back to “I stop pucks.” Boy, does he.
Just a castoff like a lot of his Columbus teammates, he now ranks second in the NHL in save percentage (.930), sixth in goals-against average (2.05) and is tied for fourth in shutouts. Suddenly, he’s a Vezina Trophy candidate as top netminder in the league.
“They compete hard and obviously they’re getting some really good goaltending,” San Jose captain Joe Thornton said. “There’s a bunch of workers over there.”
This was supposed to be a transitional year, with Davidson and new GM Jarmo Kekalainen getting a feel for the personnel, making the most of three first-round draft picks and rebuilding from the ground up. But the startling turnaround has changed all of that.
Rather than unload veterans at the deadline to stockpile more picks, Davidson and Kekalainen pulled off a blockbuster when they dealt three of their most promising younger players (centre Derick Brassard, forward Derek Dorsett and defenceman John Moore) for the 31-year-old Gaborik, a three-time All-Star who has also topped 40 goals three times.
He gives the team an offensive weapon it lacked after trading star Rick Nash in yet another multiplayer trade with the New York Rangers last summer. Now other teams must gear up to stop the quick Gaborik, who drew two defenders on one pivotal play Tuesday night and then slid a pretty setup pass to promising 20-year-old centre Ryan Johansen for the goal.
“We want to leave everything out there every game,” Gaborik said. “Hopefully we can make it interesting to the end and fight for the playoffs.”
No matter if they make it or not, all these trials will pay dividends later, coach Todd Richards said.
“It’s great for our young players to be playing big games like this because it is at a different speed, a different intensity,” he said. “To have to play at these levels, to play against these elite teams, is a great teaching experience.”
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