Imagine that: Jackets, Stars still in mix

Jack Johnson's calm belies the decidedly jittery situation in which the Columbus Blue Jackets find themselves.

Johnson was taking time before the Blue Jackets boarded their flight to Dallas, where they will play one of the most important games in the 13-year history of the franchise.

Did the defenseman stay up late the previous night to watch the Stars and Sharks play in San Jose?

Nope, Johnson said, explaining that because of the time change, he was in bed and waited until the morning to find out that the Stars had allowed two goals in a 30-second span in the third period en route to a 3-2 loss.

Surely the Blue Jackets were planning to gather en masse to root for the Los Angeles Kings on Wednesday night when they visited the Detroit Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena?

Well, Johnson said, he supposed if the game was on in the restaurant where they went for dinner, they'd keep an eye on the score. And of course guys would be keeping up to date on the game with their smartphones.

But as for gathering in one giant circle of nail-biting hockey players sticking pins in their Red Wings voodoo dolls ... uh, no.

That game, won impressively by the Red Wings 3-1, was beyond the control of the Blue Jackets.

Thursday's game in Dallas? That's something they can control.

"We're all very aware of what needs to happen for us and what's going on," Johnson said.

But, he added, "we have to win our last two games. At the end of the day, that's all we can control."

Detroit's win moved the Red Wings ahead of Columbus into the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference with 52 points, one more than the Blue Jackets. The Minnesota Wild are still in the mix, one point ahead of Detroit, while Dallas (48 points) has the biggest challenge of those still in the hunt for a postseason berth.

All four teams have two games remaining, including Thursday's now-monster clash between Columbus and Dallas in Big D. The fact that both the Stars and Blue Jackets can still discuss the postseason at this late date is something of a minor miracle and adds an upbeat backdrop to the game.

The Stars have missed the playoffs in four straight seasons, and when general manager Joe Nieuwendyk dealt veterans Derek Roy, Jaromir Jagr and Brenden Morrow during the trade deadline period -- all of whom were set to become unrestricted free agents this summer -- it appeared the team was conceding that this would mark five in a row without a postseason game.

But role players such as Vernon Fiddler and Cody Eakin, who came to Dallas in the Mike Ribeiro trade last summer, have provided key production, while veteran Ray Whitney, back from injury, has rewarded the Stars' faith (they signed the soon-to-be 41-year-old to a two-year deal last summer) with much-needed leadership. Goalie Kari Lehtonen, also just back from an injury, has been solid as the Stars have kept a playoff drive alive far longer than expected.

Going 0-2-1 on their current road trip means the Stars' margin for error is zero, but they play at home Saturday night against the Red Wings, and if they can beat Columbus and get some help from the Nashville Predators, who play both Detroit and Columbus, perhaps it will mean something -- indeed, everything.

Columbus, on the other hand, was again trending toward a top draft pick in another desultory season that included the introduction of new team president John Davidson and the midseason firing of GM Scott Howson, who was replaced by Jarmo Kekalainen.

Suddenly the culture around the team shifted and coach Todd Richards began to receive consistent, hardworking performances from a hard-skating, forechecking team that might be short on flash but is long on grit. That, coupled with all-world goaltending from Sergei Bobrovsky, now a front-runner for the Vezina Trophy and a dark horse to win the Hart Trophy as league MVP, has seen the Blue Jackets go 17-5-4 since the beginning of March.

"We've got a lot of new faces here, and we really wanted to make sure the mindset and the goals of the team changed," said Johnson, who became a Blue Jacket at last year's trade deadline, when he was acquired from Los Angeles in a deal that saw Jeff Carter go to the Kings.

In the past, the goal seemed to be about getting into the playoffs, but that seemed shortsighted, Johnson said.

"Your goal should be to win the Stanley Cup because, truthfully, if you don't win the Cup, you haven't won anything," he said.

So the Blue Jackets, who have qualified for the playoffs just once in franchise history and were swept in that appearance, started thinking big, not letting a big deficit in the standings affect their level of play.

"I'm sure some teams didn't take us seriously that should have," Johnson said. "I wouldn't trade this group of guys in our room for anything."

After Thursday's game, the Blue Jackets close out their season Saturday at home against Nashville. If they don't beat Dallas, that game may become meaningless vis à vis the playoffs, but that's something to think about after Thursday.

For a team used to slinking out of regular seasons and trying to sell fans on the promise of something better down the road, there is a new excitement surrounding this late-season push.

"There's a buzz around the city," Johnson said. "It's been a long time since they've had these kinds of meaningful games."