Defenseman Johnson got Jackets to believe in themselves

| Friday, April 25, 2014, 9:39 p.m.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The ascension of the Columbus Blue Jackets from the worst team in the NHL in 2011-12 to splitting the first four games of the Stanley Cup playoffs first-round series with the Penguins has many facets, including acquiring center Brandon Dubinsky and goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky.

Dubinsky has pestered Sidney Crosby throughout the series and scored the tying goal in Game 4 on Wednesday with 24 seconds left in third period before teammate Nick Foligno scored in overtime for a 4-3 win. Bobrovsky won the 2013 Vezina Trophy in his first season with the Blue Jackets after two seasons with the Philadelphia Flyers.

Those two are instrumental in the resurgence, but Columbus coach Todd Richards knows exactly when the team's future started looking brighter: Feb. 23, 2012.

“From that moment, the attitude started to change,” Richards said.

What happened that day? The Blue Jackets traded disgruntled forward Jeff Carter to the Los Angeles Kings for defenseman Jack Johnson that day.

To the Blue Jackets' fans it was another example of a good player not wanting to stick around. They had seen it four years earlier when captain Adam Foote orchestrated a trade deadline deal back to his former club, the Colorado Avalanche.

Carter was traded to Columbus from the Flyers early in the 2011-12 season but quickly made it known he wasn't signing a long-term lease.

So, when Johnson arrived from a team that four months later would win the Stanley Cup to one with the fewest points in the league, everyone braced for the worst.

It never came. He embraced the prospect of turning Columbus from loser to winner, and the Indiana native and former University of Michigan standout was genuinely happy to be back in the Midwest.

“To me it, was his attitude,” Richards said. “He was a guy who came from California, from a team that's possibly in the playoffs coming to a 30th-place team.”

The roster was dramatically improved over the past two seasons to the point Johnson's faith was rewarded with fanatical backing for Games 3 and 4 at Nationwide Arena for the first home playoff home games since 2009.

“That's what we envisioned it could be every night,” Johnson said. “We know just like any other city you've got to have a perennial winner to create a buzz around your team every night. We're well on our way, and it was pretty gratifying to see the building like it was.”

The only ones not happy to see Johnson might be the Penguins, who host Game 5 at 7 p.m. Saturday at Consol Energy Center. That includes Crosby, a classmate of Johnson's at Minnesota prep school Shattuck-St. Mary's and a close friend.

Maybe too close. Johnson and Dubinsky are on the ice most times Crosby is and have kept him off the goal sheet in the series.

“There are no friends in the playoffs,” Johnson said.

He proved that by scoring a goal in each of the first three games of the series. He also has two assists and averages 29:36 minutes of ice time.

“You see him going hard every shift, so you know you can't let him down,” defenseman Dalton Prout said. “He's a great leader.”

Richards relates how at a team meeting following the miserable 2011-12 season he asked the players their goals for the following season.

“It got around to Jack, and I'm not sure how many guys had gone before him, but his response was, ‘I want to win the Stanley Cup. That's my goal,' ” Richards said.

“Other guys were saying make the playoffs, this or that. It was him that said, ‘I want to win the Stanley Cup. I'm not in it to make the playoffs. I'm not in it to finish second.' ”

Craig Merz is a freelance writer.

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