Luck might be on side of Blue Jackets this season
It was definitely a turning point.
Late in March, the Columbus Blue Jackets trailed 3-0 against the Detroit Red Wings, who were on their way to another Presidents' Trophy. Then, Columbus posted a third-period comeback en route to a 5-4 shootout win over Detroit.
After that game, the Blue Jackets finished an injury-plagued season with a 7-3-1 final stretch, posting the seventh-best record in the league over the second half. Although they were out of the playoff hunt, they showed a maturity they didn't have before. In the past, Columbus would win a game, then lose three.
Now, the Blue Jackets are starting off the new season strong, and relatively healthy. And like the Edmonton Oilers before them, the Jackets have a chance to make the playoffs this season. Don't believe me? Well, I'll tell you why it's more than possible.
The Buckeye Factor
There isn't one hockey team in the United States that wouldn't love more attention. But the Jackets will always have to battle the hoopla surrounding the top-ranked Ohio State football team. Heck, even one of the Jackets' main PR guys is an OSU grad! It's a tough battle. The team purposely doesn't schedule a home game on Saturdays because they know they can't beat the OSU crowds. (And let's face it, it's even hard to get sports fans in bigger markets like New York interested in hockey when the Giants, Jets, Mets and Yankees are still in the hunt.)
Still, the team doesn't feel like it is an afterthought, and in the Jackets' sixth season, they still get the crowds coming at Nationwide Arena. And this season, the expectations are higher than ever. Why? The club has yet to make the playoffs. Imagine if they did? The community would respond, big time. Look at what happened in Carolina.
One example of the community's dedication to hockey is its effort to promote the sport from the ground up. Hockey is in action at every level: youth leagues, high school, the USHL. Hockey is working in Columbus. Obviously, a playoff berth would help even more.
There is an undercurrent of hockey hysteria in Columbus. They are doing it right there. People are ready for an NHL team. You can't just put an NHL team in a town without there being some desire within the community to have a team.
Experience, experience, experience
One of the reasons the Jackets can turn the corner is the presence of Adam Foote, a Cup winner in Colorado before heading to the Jackets. Foote is the type of player that can come in and give his team confidence in the locker room; the type of player that can skate up to his teammates when they're down 3-0 and say, "Hey, c'mon, let's go!" His favorite saying for the team: "To be successful, you can't be on the roller coaster." It's a cliché, but it's so true in hockey. The Jackets never had any middle ground; they'd be really high or really low. That seems to be changing. Momentum and belief are crucial for teams, especially in the postseason.
The big deals
In June, the Jackets acquired left winger Fredrik Modin from the Tampa Bay Lightning for goalie Marc Denis. I think this trade was a steal for Columbus. Modin can be a 25-goal scorer. He is not a "rah-rah" kind of player, but his lead-by-example attitude will help the team gain more confidence. His best season was with Tampa Bay in 2003-04, when the Lightning won the Cup. He had 57 points in 82 games.
Later in the summer, the team signed free agent Anson Carter. Some have said the only reason he had a successful 2005-06 season in Vancouver was because of the Sedin twins. But he believes he has more scoring power left, and his arrival gives the Jackets more depth up front.
Nash is healthy
Outside of the early injury to Sergei Fedorov, the Jackets have been off to a decent start and they have a healthy Rick Nash in the lineup to start the season, something they didn't have a year ago. There's no doubting how important Nash is to the lineup. Remember the Jackets' strong second half last season? Well, it was no coincidence it happened with Nash back on the ice. There were only nine games from Feb. 1 through the end of the season in which Nash was held without a point. Through Thursday, he already has three goals and three assists in three games. Oh, and he's only 22!
Strong in net
The, you have young netminder Pascal Leclaire. Some goalies are off the wall, but the 23-year-old has a quiet confidence. He doesn't go too high or too low. The players also like him. In Saturday's game against Chicago, the Jackets were down 2-0 early in the first period. Foote skated over to Leclaire to make sure he was OK. The goalie said, "Yeah, I'm fine. No big deal." The Jackets went on to win 5-4.
In the NFL, teams sometimes get nervous when they have to put in a backup QB (a kid out of college, in some cases). In hockey, a successful, young goalie can have a ripple effect for your team. Look at how Cam Ward came in for the Hurricanes last spring. Look how confident Carolina became with each win from the rookie. Leclaire, now the go-to goalie with Denis out of town, could bring the same thing to the Jackets.
Now, I'm not a moron; the Western Conference is a difficult group. But all the Blue Jackets have to do is get into the playoffs, like Edmonton last season, and anything is possible.
Hooked on hockey, Linda Cohn is an anchor for ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNews. She has been with the network since 1992 and promises a gluttony of glove saves in her weekly column.