COLUMBUS, Ohio – Without looking at a calendar, it’s easy to tell it’s playoff time at Ken Hitchcock’s house.
The bills are piling up and so are the dishes. There’s a stack of newspapers by the front door. A tower of videotapes sit by the television, past games awaiting further review by the Columbus Blue Jackets coach.
Hitchcock is so focused on his team that he’s become oblivious to all aspects of normal life.
“The one thing you find out at this time of the year is that the rest of the world stops,” he said Monday. “All of the things that people do in everyday life, for us, stops.
“You spend little or no time with it. You exist. It’s like you sleep, you come to the rink, you work at preparing your team, you go home and you rest.”
The Blue Jackets, who are in their eighth season but have yet to make the playoffs, woke up Monday morning to find themselves with an unsteady grip on sixth place in the Western Conference with 86 points. Nashville, which Columbus hosts on Tuesday night, is seventh with 84 points. St. Louis holds the eighth and final playoff spot with 83 points – with Anaheim (82), Edmonton (81) and Minnesota (80) right behind.
Each of those six teams have six games left.
If the current top eight teams hold onto their positions, it’ll mark the first time in 28 years that every team from one division, in this case the Central (Detroit, Chicago, Columbus, Nashville, St. Louis), puts all of its members in the playoffs.
St. Louis general manager Larry Pleau told NHL.com, “We’re hoping that happens again.”
Things are so tight and every point so critical that everybody studies the standings, listens for the late scores and ponders every injury and personnel move.
For instance, the Predators lost forward Martin Erat to a broken left leg Sunday in Detroit, felled by teammate Shea Weber’s slapshot. Erat will likely be gone for a month.
“That’s a tough loss. Good player,” Columbus captain Rick Nash said. But he said this is no time to express sympathy.
“Everybody has injuries.”
The Blue Jackets are without several mainstays – Fredrik Modin, Jason Chimera, Ole-Kristian Tollefsen, Derick Brassard – and nobody is feeling sorry for them.
Miss the playoffs and no one remembers that a team was down an important player or two.
“It’s tough when any player goes down, but we need points,” Nash said. “We have to worry about what we have to do here.”
After hosting Nashville on Tuesday night, the Blue Jackets return the favour Saturday night. They play at home against fifth-place Chicago on Sunday before playing at Chicago on April 8, at St. Louis on April 10 and closing the regular season at home against Minnesota on April 11.
St. Louis is the hottest of the six teams fighting for those last three playoff spots, but the Blues are at home for only that showdown against Columbus on April 10. Nashville has won its last three, but no one knows how the Predators will handle the loss of Erat, their second-leading scorer.
So bunched are the standings that players are paying as much attention to other scores as their own.
“At this time of year you can’t depend on other teams to do you any favours,” Blue Jackets centre Jason Williams said. “You’ve got to go out there and basically take care of business your own way.”
Nash, the Blue Jackets’ top scorer with 36 goals and 37 assists in 72 games, tries to shut out everything that’s happening elsewhere.
“We’re still in a position where we control our own destiny,” he said. “We don’t have to worry about scores. No one’s going to help us. We’re going to have to do it ourselves.”
The Blue Jackets made several costly mistakes in a 5-2 loss to St. Louis on Sunday. With the score tied 1-1 in the second period, stellar rookie goaltender Steve Mason whiffed on a clearing attempt up the middle and instead feathered a perfect tape-to-tape pass to Brad Boyes, who buried the gift goal.
But players cannot live in fear of such gaffes, Columbus defenceman Mike Commodore said. All the players know what’s riding on the outcome of each game, but they cannot afford to be so hesitant to do something wrong that they don’t do anything right.
“If you think like that, then you’re going to lose,” he said. “If you’re out there thinking, ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that,’ you’re going to lose the game.
“You just have to play.”
Although most of his players have never been to the playoffs, Hitchcock has been in these kinds of pressure-cooker situations before as coach in Dallas and Philadelphia. While he puts the world on hold, he prepares his team and keeps his fingers crossed.
“I know one thing: There’s six games left for all of us, and I really feel one team is going to run the table,” he said. “I don’t know who it is.
“Maybe it’s us. Who knows? But somebody’s going to win all six.”