Blue Jackets loving every playoff minute
April, 17, 2014
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com
PITTSBURGH -- At the beginning of the season, Columbus Blue Jackets president John Davidson met with his players and talked about opportunity. Not just the opportunity of doing something special this season, but of big-picture opportunities; as in, how many opportunities do players get in their career to be part of something unique, meaningful?
Davidson played in 301 NHL games and in 1979 was with the New York Rangers when they lost to the Montreal Canadiens in the Stanley Cup finals.
He imagined those kinds of experiences would be within his grasp again and again.
He never made it back to the finals and in fact appeared in only 10 postseason games after that.
"You just don't know," Davidson told ESPN.com.
The Columbus Blue Jackets, a team still searching for their first-ever postseason victory after dropping Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals to the Pittsburgh Penguins by a 4-3 count on Wednesday, are a team that has had precious few moments like this in their history.
This is only their second trip to the postseason, and they were swept by the Detroit Red Wings in the first one. Wednesday night marked the first time they actually held a lead in a playoff game.
So much of the discussion surrounding the Blue Jackets, who earned the top wild-card in the Eastern Conference with a strong second half, has been about seizing the moment, taking it in.
"You've got to embrace the opportunity to play for the big prize, the Stanley Cup," Davidson said.
While they might be a team short on experience -- 11 players in Wednesday's Game 1 had never played in an NHL playoff game and there were a handful of others whose playoff experiences numbered in the single digits -- rest assured, win or lose, the Blue Jackets are soaking up every minute of this trip to the playoff dance.
Perhaps no one is doing more soaking than veteran forward Derek MacKenzie. At 32, he is the senior member of a youthful Columbus team. He has been with the team since 2007, and Wednesday marked his first-ever playoff game as an NHLer. That kind of drought brings with it a lot of introspection, wondering and downright despair.
"I think, personally, there was a time you question whether what you're doing is good enough to help the team get to the playoffs," MacKenzie told ESPN.com. "I think there were some times when, yeah, we felt like it's a long shot or we needed a break. I think the mentality going into this year was, we stick to the game plan and do what we're supposed to and we're going to get there. The way last season ended kind of was a big eye-opener, especially for some of the young guys, and they did a great job stepping up this year.
"Being part of this organization for seven years, you always hoped that you could get to this point, but things happen along the way and you're never sure who's going to be standing there at the end. So, I feel pretty fortunate that I made it through some of the darker days."
They all have their stories, whether it's the top draft picks, such as Ryan Murray or Ryan Johansen, who had a breakout year leading the Blue Jackets in scoring by a wide margin, or veterans who have been cast off by other teams. They have come together in the face of years of disappointment and failure to try to create something different.
Mark Letestu, for instance, began his NHL career with the Pittsburgh Penguins but was traded early in 2011 to Columbus.
"Any time you get traded, you feel like you're not wanted or you're being cast off somewhere else, but I chose to just look at it positively," Letestu told ESPN.com. "At the time, Columbus was a struggling franchise, last place at the time, so I knew I was going somewhere that I knew I was going to get a chance to play and I had a chance to establish myself as an NHL regular. So the move for my career's been great. Now that we've got ourselves back in the Stanley Cup mix, it couldn't have worked out better.
"I think most guys here are eyes and ears open; we're trying to soak it in as much as possible. I think we did a good job of that last season with the drive for the playoffs and just coming up short. And this year [we] seemed to learn it and got done early, understood the situation and executed. So hopefully guys are eyes and ears open here, learn as much as they can, so in the future we have experiences to draw back on," said Letestu, who finished the season playing his best hockey and picked up a goal in Game 1 on the power play.
Davidson uses a building metaphor, the setting in place of a series of bricks in constructing a team capable of making the playoffs and being a threat.
It requires patience and commitment from the top on down.
Ownership is committed and Davidson -- who came over from St. Louis, where he helped get that franchise back on track after some lean years -- hired Jarmo Kekalainen as his GM.
"He's sturdy," Davidson said of Kekalainen. "We've had a roller-coaster year. There's a lot of roller coaster in a young team. And if you don't have that steadiness, you don't have anything."
Kekalainen said he's pleased for the franchise and the city to be rewarded for their patience through difficult times.
But it's the players who have bought in and made things happen that Kekalainen feels most pleased for.
Head coach Todd Richards is likewise a sturdy fellow, and his team plays a fast, sturdy game that was on display Wednesday night when they out-hit the Penguins by a large margin.
In the two years Davidson's been with the team, he has heard not one complaint about Richards or his staff, which is unusual, given the decisions on ice time and roles that invariably leave some players disappointed or angry.
"He's a straight shooter," Davidson said of his coach.
MacKenzie is, to follow the building imagery, the cement that helps bind those bricks, and his hard-nosed play and his perseverance have resonated in the locker room.
In Game 1, he scored a short-handed goal that at the time gave Columbus a 3-1 lead.
"He's invested a lot," Davidson said. "He's one of the real quality people on the club."
MacKenzie said it's been a lot more fun this spring being around Columbus.
"It's been fun playing at home," he said. "Certainly, again, in years past, you had to explain why you didn't make it or why you didn't get there to a lot of people. Columbus is a great hockey town, an educated hockey town. It’s been nice just going to the zoo with the kids and the odd fan showing their excitement.
"We've been promising it for a long time, and now it's finally here."