It has been a long grind for Columbus Blue Jackets fans. Ever since the year 2000, when Ron Tugnutt was tending the pipes, the good people of Ohio have been anxiously waiting for their Blue Jackets to make a post-season appearance. Years passed, and the Blue Jackets threatened a few times, but inevitably faded down the stretch, and every year the club was on the outside looking in when curtain closed on the 82nd game of the regular season. This futility was further put under the microscope when the Atlanta Thrashers made the playoffs two years ago. The Thrashers were quickly shown the door in a 4-0 sweep by the New York Rangers, but despite the quick exit the Thrashers’ brief post-season appearance left the Jackets as the only active team to never appear in the Stanley Cup playoffs. However, it is looking increasingly likely that this will be the year that Columbus can finally cast away that particular badge of shame.
After a dominating 5-0 win over the Calgary Flames last night the Jackets are currently comfortably ensconced in 6th place in the competitive Western Conference, 5 points up on their nearest competitors in Anaheim and Nashville, and 6 points clear of the highest non-playoff team, the Edmonton Oilers. Now, a 6 point gap between making the playoffs or not mightn’t seem that comfortable, but compared to the logjam that’s been the Western Conference playoff race for the past month 6 points is a veritable country mile. That being said, Columbus cannot afford to take their foot off the pedal as ground can quickly be made up in this era of 3 point games.
So who is responsible for potentially ending this almost decade-long playoff drought? Well, coach Ken Hitchcock, one of the game’s brightest minds, certainly deserves some credit. The defensive system he has instilled is almost impossible for opposing teams to crack. Rick Nash, the only pure offensive star on the Jackets, has already set a career high with points with 71, a very impressive total considering he really doesn’t have much of anything in the way of offensive help on this team. As good as both Hitchcock and Nash have been, however, the credit for the Blue Jackets’ success can be laid squarely at the feet of one
boy man: goaltender Steve Mason.
Mason, a 20 year old rookie who didn’t even start the season with the big club, certainly hasn’t squandered the chance he got when former #1 Pascal Leclaire went down with an injury. He has been stellar throughout the season, and his shutout last night against Calgary was his 10th of the season, best in the league, and also the 2nd highest total in NHL history for a rookie goaltender behind only the legendary Tony Esposito’s 15 donut performance in his inaugural year.
If Mason can avoid wilting under the pressure of the stretch drive then there is every reason to believe that Columbus fans will finally get their chance to watch their club in the playoffs come April. And with Hitchcock at the helm, a hungry Nash finally getting his first taste of the post-season, and a brick wall in goal look for the Jackets to make a much more significant impact than the Thrashers did in ’07.