<
>

Jackets grinding way toward success

You watch the Columbus Blue Jackets play and what you see is a hungry pack of wolves fighting for loose pucks, as if it's their one meal of the day.

Wave after wave, they're a lunch-bucket crew with unwavering energy.

This is not a team that you'd want to face in the first round of the playoffs. Not with reigning Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky doing his thing again, not with the style of play that makes Columbus a pain in the butt to play against right now.

"That's the kind of game we have to play, that smack-you-in-the-face type of hockey," gritty two-way winger R.J. Umberger told ESPN.com on Wednesday. "We don't want to get into a track meet, we want to grind you down, we want to wear the other team's defense out as much as we can. That's the kind of style we have to play."

There's something infectious about the way the Jackets play. Like they're playing for each other. Like they don't want to lose a single 50-50 puck battle.

"We play an honest game, we play hard, we don't cheat ourselves," said John Davidson, the Jackets' president of hockey operations.

Wait a minute, did I casually make a Jackets playoff reference at the top of this story and just move on? This is a franchise that has made the playoffs just once in 13 seasons, going out meekly in four straight to Detroit in 2009.

"This is my sixth season here," said Umberger, one of the club's longest-serving members. "We've been through a lot of ups and downs. My first season here, we made the playoffs for the first time. It was a great achievement. It's been a shame that it's taken us so long to be so competitive again."

As much as fans in Long Island and Edmonton have been put through the ringer over the past decade, at least they've got Cup banners from the 1980s to reminisce about. One playoff series in 13 seasons, trade demands from high-profile players, mistakes from management in the early years that set everything back ... it's been a tough go in Columbus, to say the least.

"This could be the Columbus Roller-Coasters, as opposed to the Columbus Blue Jackets," said Davidson, whose arrival in the fall of 2012 was an important move for the club. "There have been a lot of ups and down here. The fans really want it bad. The support has been good. But we have to prove it, though. We have to continue to prove that this won't be a club that's just going to be a flash now and again. We've got to be a consistent team that plays a consistent game that has growth. It's a hard thing to do, but that's the idea of us trying to get better."

The renaissance began last season with the Jackets tying the Minnesota Wild for the last playoff spot in the West but losing out on the tiebreaker. They were in the mix to the end, but just fell short.

Critics will point out that the Jackets rank a lowly 28th in attendance this season, averaging 14,159 a game. I would flip that argument around and point out that I can't believe there are as many hard-core fans in Columbus as there are after 13 seasons of mostly misery. Which to me suggests a marketplace that's just begging for this team to finally make the playoffs a regular habit.

They're hungry for a winner. They haven't given up on their hockey team. The support is there for hockey. But they need to be won over again before they start filling the joint on a consistent basis.

"Only making the playoffs one time, that could have crippled a lot of markets," said Umberger. "This city is passionate about hockey, they want a winner so bad, they want to see playoffs. The season-ticket holders that have been here since Day 1 are so loyal and so supportive. They've been through a lot of tough times. I think they've enjoyed the last year and a half. We had a good run last season. These fans want to see the effort every night, the compete level, it doesn't have to be a Stanley Cup but they want to see you compete and work hard. That's the type of fans they are."

And those fans are getting an honest night's work from their Jackets these days. Columbus has gone 17-7-1 since Jan. 1 to force itself back into the playoff mix. The Jackets now sit third in the Metropolitan Division, although they're very much in an end-of-season battle with several teams to get in.

The Jackets, who host San Jose on Thursday night, are a four-line team that is very much the sum of its parts, not relying on any one superstar to carry the day.

"Absolutely, we're a team that needs all 20 guys going," said Umberger, who has 17 goals on the season. "We have four well-balanced lines, our fourth line will play a significant role. We just have a team that folds hard-working guys that can play all throughout the lineup. We were rolling three power-play units for a while, we have about 10 forwards that play on the power play. We're just a group that throughout all the injuries and everything else that's happened this year, we've just had guys step up and played as a team this year."

Their big win over Detroit on Tuesday night seemed emblematic of who they are: Bobrovsky outstanding early when the Red Wings pushed hard, and then goals by rookie Boone Jenner and Brandon Dubinsky just 40 seconds apart in the third period blowing up a 1-1 game. They grinded down the Wings until it broke Detroit's back.

This is how one NHL coach broke down the Jackets when asked via text message for his read on them: "Good depth, heavy, mobile D, outstanding goaltending, really good fourth line in [Mark Letestu and Derek Mackenzie] pairing [left-right shot for faceoffs]; top three centers: the third-line guy [Artem Anisimov] has 18 goals, Dubinsky is real competitive and [Ryan] Johansen is going to be a star. This has been a team coming for a long time."

Third-year center Johansen has indeed been something special this season, really his coming-out party, leading the team in scoring with 49 points (25-24) and really just scratching the surface. The fourth overall pick from the 2010 draft is going to be something else, just as injured rookie blueliner Ryan Murray will be as well. And more kids are on the way as the Blue Jackets patiently restock the franchise with players.

Former GM Scott Howson deserves credit because some of his decisions are now bearing fruit. Current GM Jarmo Kekalainen was a great hire, though, his eye for young talent and patient approach going step for step with what Davidson was looking to build. This is the stable, long-term blue-print that Davidson instilled in St. Louis, inheriting a franchise in jeopardy in the Blues years ago upon his arrival, with small crowds and all. Look at the Blues now.

That's the plan in Columbus, and there's support from ownership to see it through. For as much as making the playoffs this season would mean a lot for obvious reasons in a market that has yet to taste a postseason victory -- ever -- what's more encouraging to see is that the Jackets are showing signs of being a franchise that's going to be competitive for years to come. And that's the true antidote that Columbus needed to end its cycle of despair, a formula that produces an organization that does things right on and off the ice, produces players the old-fashioned way with no short cuts, and ultimately, perhaps regular visits to the playoffs and beyond.

Whether it's this year or the playoffs wait another season, this Jackets franchise is headed in the right direction.

Finally, and mercifully.