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Blue Jackets confident as they wade into postseason

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By Craig Merz
Tuesday, April 15, 2014, 10:06 p.m.
 

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ryan Johansen's first skate Monday around the Nationwide Arena rink produced a wide grin.

The 21-year-old Columbus Blue Jackets center immediately noticed a difference in the ice surface as he loosened up.

Afterward, he couldn't stop smiling when approached by the media. What was it that had the Blue Jackets' leading scorer so excited?

The words “Stanley Cup Playoffs 2014” had been embedded into the ice.

“That was cool,” Johansen said. “It's just kind of another pinch you get where it's actually going to happen, and we're here and we're going to be at Nationwide (Arena) in front of our fans.”

In some cities — Pittsburgh, for example — entry into the Stanley Cup Playoffs is a rite of spring.

Not in Columbus, where the Blue Jackets (43-32-7) reached the postseason for just the second time in their 13-year history and will open an Eastern Conference first-round series Wednesday at Consol Energy Center against the Penguins (51-24-7).

The Blue Jackets' previous playoff appearance in 2009 lasted eight days, long enough for the Detroit Red Wings to eliminate them in four games.

It was as if Cup hysteria did a flyby over Ohio's capital.

“It was the first time this franchise ever made the playoffs,” forward Jared Boll said. “Obviously it was a goal of ours to make it, and we made it.

“This year, it's different. We're here now and expect to do good things. We're not satisfied with just making the playoffs. We want to be successful.”

There is hope even though Pittsburgh won all five meetings this season, including three in Columbus.

“The season's over,” Columbus forward Derek McKenzie said. “It doesn't matter what your record is. We're not focused on stats and how we got here. We're just worried about playing our best hockey in Game 1.”

There are two areas where the Blue Jackets would seem overmatched: playoff experience and skill. Columbus has a reputation for its work ethic but isn't on the same talent level as the Penguins. The Blue Jackets must rely heavily on a group of young players who have yet to be enveloped by the pressure of postseason hockey.

When forwards Nick Foligno and Plum native R.J. Umberger sat out the regular-season finale at Florida on Saturday because of injuries, the Blue Jackets dressed 12 forwards with a combined 69 career playoff games.

Penguins' center Sidney Crosby enters Game 1 with 82 postseason games and one Stanley Cup under his belt.

The Blue Jackets are green in a lot of areas, including behind the bench. Coach Todd Richards will make his postseason debut.

“We are young. We have some rookie players,” Richards said. “The other thing, too, is I'm a rookie coach going into the playoffs. It's a learning process for all of us, and for me it's a focus, getting prepared and enjoying the experience. This is what you work for, these pressure moments.”

Nobody exemplifies the Blue Jackets' rise more than Johansen. A year ago after the Blue Jackets lost the final Western Conference playoff spot on a tiebreaker to Minnesota, he was sent to their farm team in Springfield, Mass., for the American Hockey League playoffs to complete his second pro season.

But the fourth overall pick in the 2010 draft was unceremoniously benched because of uninspired play. Johansen arrived in training camp in September with a better attitude and had a breakout season — 33 goals and 63 points — to drive the Blue Jackets into the first wild-card position.

“This is the most exciting time of my life,” he said. “We're playing in the Stanley Cup playoffs. It's a kid's dream to play in the NHL. Then it's everybody's dream to be able to play for the Cup.

“If you really think about it, if we can play another month or so of some great hockey, anything can happen.”

Craig Merz is a freelance writer.

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