There something different about the Columbus Blue Jackets this season.
Just ask captain Rick Nash, who has been around for all but two of the franchise’s eight seasons. While the team still faces the same over-riding question – will this be the year it makes the playoffs? – the Columbus players finally believe they have a reason to answer “yes.”
That represents a change from years passed.
“It does feel different,” Nash said Thursday on a conference call. “We go into any building now and we’ve got a chance to win. Before you go into places like Detroit, San Jose, Colorado, we just kind of felt like we couldn’t pull it together.
“Now we’ve got the depth on the team.”
One of the youngest players in the dressing room is also giving them a reason to believe.
Goaltender Steve Mason started the season in the American Hockey League but has quickly made an impact with the big club. He’s essentially taken the No. 1 job from Pascal Leclaire by posting five shutouts and 13 wins in his first 23 NHL games.
The 20-year-old currently leads the league in save percentage (.934) and goals-against average (1.82), and has helped change the culture around the team.
“He’s such a solid goalie that he looks like a 10-year veteran back there,” said Nash. “He’s calm, he’s confident.
“When your goalie plays that way and gives you a chance to win every night, the confidence runs through the team.”
Confidence is key, particularly during an important stretch of schedule.
The Blue Jackets were three points out of a playoff spot in the tight Western Conference entering play Thursday night. They have seven games remaining before the all-star break and are looking to make some headway.
“The next couple weeks are pretty big for us,” said Nash. “We’ve got a chance to win every single night and I think that’s all you can ask from a team.
“We know we have it now.”
Nash, 24, was the lone Blue Jackets representative chosen for the Jan. 25 all-star game in Montreal, although Mason could easily have joined him.
It will be his fourth trip. Nash scored three goals during last year’s game in Atlanta but was overlooked for the MVP award in part because the Western Conference was beaten 8-7. Even though he seemed a bit upset at the time, Nash downplayed any disappointment he might have felt.
“I didn’t lose any sleep over it,” he said. “The media picks it.
“That’s what they thought.”
Besides, there are bigger things on his mind.
Nash suffered a lower-body injury in Detroit earlier this week and will be one of seven regulars out of the lineup when the Blue Jackets visit Washington on Friday night. Fortunately, his ailment isn’t serious and he expects to return to the lineup early next week.
In the meantime, the Jackets will be counting heavily on AHL fill-ins like teenager Nikita Filatov.
“This is a chance for the young guys to step up,” said Nash. “This is when we need them most.”
Even though Nash has been the team’s biggest star since 2003-’04, he currently finds himself in more of a leadership role than ever before.
Coach Ken Hitchcock gave him the Blue Jackets captaincy last March. While the role comes with more responsibility, it hasn’t turned the soft-spoken Nash into a motivational speaker.
“Guys knew before I was the captain so I think if I get the ‘C’ on my jersey and I stand up and start yelling, screaming, calling guys out and things like that, then it’s not going to be real,” he said. “In saying in that, I know that it’s my job now.
“I look at myself to lead by example on the ice and if something needs to be said, then I’ll stand up and say it.”
The Blue Jackets are the only NHL franchise that has never qualified for the post-season and everyone in the organization is constantly reminded of that fact.
Nash is so eager to experience playoff hockey that he says his current injury would never keep him out of the lineup during a seven-game series.
“I’d probably play with broken bones,” he said.