COLUMBUS, Ohio – The Columbus Blue Jackets don’t mind all the doubters.
In fact, they almost welcome them.
“People were waiting for us to falter, kind of waiting to say, ‘I told you so,”’ coach Todd Richards said of his team’s season. “And this team never did.”
Saddled with years of losing, bad trades and awful draft picks, the Blue Jackets also get it that almost no one thinks they have a shot against the mighty Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, which start on Wednesday night.
It might look like a mismatch on paper, one of the youngest teams in the NHL making just its second postseason trip in the franchise’s 13 seasons against a list of superstars that includes Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Co.
But the Blue Jackets, while accepting all the slights and putdowns, really do believe they’re in a good place.
“If you look at the character in this room and the resiliency, it’s second to none,” defenseman James Wisniewski said. “No matter what happens, we haven’t stayed down for too long. We’ve always bounced back. We’ve had some tough losses and the next game we come up fine. So, look for us to make a statement this playoffs.”
The only time the Blue Jackets made the playoffs before they were led by rookie of the year goaltender Steve Mason in 2008-09 and were swept aside in four games by the Detroit Red Wings.
The club has gone through a sea change since then, however. Former general manager Scott Howson pulled the trigger on a blockbuster deal that sent captain Rick Nash – who had asked to be traded – to the New York Rangers for the core of this club, including gritty center Brandon Dubinsky and talented goal-scorer Artem Anisimov, along with a first-round draft pick and young defenseman Tim Erixon.
Howson also brought in goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, considered a playoff failure in Philadelphia. The Russian won the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top netminder last season when the Blue Jackets missed the playoffs on a tiebreaker after a late-season hot streak.
After Howson was let go shortly before the Blue Jackets turned things around on the ice, new GM Jarmo Kekalainen and director of hockey operations John Davidson locked up Bobrovsky with a long-term contract and added several key components. Along with Richards, they also instilled a work ethic that has made the Blue Jackets a team that the NHL’s elite teams hate to play.
Now there’s nothing they’d rather do than prove everyone wrong.
“Most of the experts probably never played the sport and don’t know what they’re talking about. So it’s usually not hard to prove them wrong,” said defenseman Jack Johnson, who came to Columbus along with another first-rounder when disaffected star Jeff Carter was dealt to Los Angeles. “But we’ve got a really good group of guys in here with good heads on their shoulders. Our expectations in the room are higher than anyone else’s outside of the room.”
The Penguins have far more firepower. Many of their current players were a part of the 2009 Stanley Cup champions. They certainly have far more recognizable names on the roster than does Columbus.
Yet the Blue Jackets almost welcome the opportunity to test themselves against one of the NHL’s marquee lineups.
“We’ll embrace it if people want to call us the underdogs,” said Dubinsky. “I don’t think we feel that way in here. We feel like we can compete with anybody. And Pittsburgh’s not going to be any different.”
Loaded with rookies and players in their early 20s, the Blue Jackets won just six of their first 19 games (6-10-3). But they went 26-13-3 in 2014 to grab the first wild-card spot in the East.
Nick Schultz played 871 NHL games in Minnesota and Edmonton before coming to Columbus for a high draft pick at the trade deadline.
He understands why so many think so little of the Blue Jackets.
“They see the Blue Jackets only being in the postseason one time (before) and now matching up against the Penguins,” he said. “They probably don’t give the team much of a chance. But it’s an opportunity for this team to really prove itself. Once you get in the playoffs and compete and work hard and get some momentum going, anything can happen.”
Last week, forward Mark Letestu – a Penguins castoff – said it was fitting that the Blue Jackets had to earn their playoff spot on the road during a brutal stretch of four games in five nights.
He laughed as he called it “very Blue Jackets of us.”
“It seems like we do things the hard way. If there’s an obstacle, we don’t go around it we go through it,” he said this week. “We’re slowly changing that view of us, that culture. It’s just one step at a time here for us.”