There’s a lot of excitement surrounding the Columbus Blue Jackets’ first-ever playoff push and not just from players and fans anxious for that initial taste of post-season action.
In fact, the guy who might be most excited at the prospect of springtime hockey still has the memory of a monster playoff fresh in his mind.
R.J. Umberger is about three-quarters of the way through his first season in Columbus. He used to play on a team in Philadelphia that was so deep at center it traded him on draft day last June for a first round pick the Flyers used to select defenseman Luca Sbisa.
Sufficed to say, that same logjam doesn’t exist in Columbus. The 6-foot-2, 210-pound Umberger was brought in with the hope he could play a more offensive role than he was filling in Philly and with four goals in his past five games, he starting to do just that.
“There’s always pressure no matter what,” said Umberger of adapting to new expectations on a new team. “I don’t really worry about that, I just try to play my game. I’ve got my game to a level where it needs to be the last three, four weeks and this is the time of year you want to play your best and this is the time of year I love to play. I think I’m finally settled in and enjoying my spot in Columbus.”
Jackets captain Rick Nash had nothing but praise for Umberger, who’s tracking a career-high 28-goal season.
“He’s been great,” Nash said. “He plays a hard-nosed style, a lot of energy. It’s a position we needed to fill and he definitely stepped in and picked that up.”
While the Jackets will happily take Umberger’s increased production, you can bet Columbus GM Scott Howson isn’t about to cease his tire-kicking when it comes to landing a true top-line center.
But should the Jackets make the jump and finally earn a playoff berth for the first time in franchise history, Howson will also be hoping Umberger can rekindle his post-season magic from last year with the Flyers. After potting 13 regular season goals in 2007-08, the 26-year-old scored 10 times in 17 playoff games, including eight tallies – yes, eight – in a five-game defeat of Montreal in Round 2.
Umberger’s explanation for his outrageous output was basically some variation on spring being the most wonderful time of the year.
“It’s the playoffs, you get so excited to play,” he said. “You get your game elevated and if you get in the zone and get things going for you, the confidence builds, it’s contagious, it just keeps going. I was in the right frame of mind and just having fun, really.”
If all goes to plan, Columbus players and fans will finally get to experience that feeling for themselves. And maybe bear witness to more Umberger magic.
“Yeah, I hope so,” he grinned. “That’s the time of the year I love.”
Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Wednesdays and his column, Top Shelf, appears Fridays.
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