COLUMBUS, Ohio - As if it's not enough to beat teams on the ice or in the standings, coach Ken Hitchcock knows his Columbus Blue Jackets also must overcome the perception that they're still a bunch of lovable losers.
"We're there (in the playoff picture), I don't want to call us an afterthought, but we don't come up in the topic of discussion," he said on Wednesday, a day after the Blue Jackets rode rookie goaltender Steve Mason's 35 saves to a 2-0 victory over the Boston Bruins. "We're there, and it's nice to see us there, but I'm not sure how many people really believe that we're really going to be there at the end."
The victory kept the Blue Jackets, who have never come close to a playoff spot in seven previous seasons, in sixth place in the Western Conference standings with 15 games remaining. With a record of 34-27-6, Columbus can tie the franchise mark for wins in a season when it hosts Pittsburgh on Thursday night.
The roster is stocked with players who have had success on other playoff teams. The club has a superstar in Rick Nash and one of the brightest goalie prospects in the league in Mason.
Yet, there are lingering questions that Columbus has what it takes to make it to the post-season.
"Right now (people think) we're pesky, but we have the potential to go away," said Hitchcock, who guided Dallas to the Stanley Cup in 1999.
It's no wonder there are doubters. The Blue Jackets have never had a winning season, and are the only one of the 30 NHL teams to never make the playoffs.
Columbus' marketing department has adopted a slogan, "March to the Playoffs." That might have seemed downright laughable as recently as three months ago. Yet there are several factors which point to the Blue Jackets having the last laugh.
-Nash has been carrying the Blue Jackets on his back.
One of only eight players to score 25 goals or more in each of the last five seasons, he has become an all-around player. He's a bull playing keepaway with the puck on the penalty kill and is a constant threat to score on offence, where he has 32 goals and 33 assists, has notched five goals in the last three games and has points in his last five.
On Saturday night against Stanley Cup champion Detroit, in Hockeytown no less, he picked up his fourth career hat trick - and second this season against the defensive-minded Red Wings - in a stunningly lopsided 8-2 victory that set franchise records for goals and margin of victory. He had three unassisted goals in a game for the first time since Rocket Richard did it in 1948.
More than anyone, the six-year veteran seems energized by the large, loud crowds that are flooding Nationwide Arena, where the Blue Jackets are 21-10-2 this year.
"It's a great atmosphere," he said after scoring an empty-netter to clinch the win over the Bruins. "It helps a lot when the fans are that loud. It was fun to play in an arena like this."
-Mason has been a cement wall in goal.
His nine shutouts lead all goaltenders this season and are the most by an NHL rookie since Tony Esposito had 15 in 1969-70.
Big (six-foot-four), rangy and athletic, he was in the minors for the first month of the season, and missed games or wasn't himself for at least three weeks while recovering from mononucleosis. Yet he's still 27-16-3 with a 2.19 goals-against average and a .920 save percentage, all of which are among the best marks in the league.
"Give the kid credit," Boston centre Marc Savard said of Mason's latest whitewash.
-The supporting cast has contributed.
Despite losing important players Jason Chimera, Rostislav Klesla and Fredrik Modin for long stretches of the season due to injuries, the Blue Jackets have kept their heads above water or even excelled. General manager Scott Howson retooled the roster with off-season trades and signings that brought Raffi Torres, R.J. Umberger, Kristian Huselius, Mike Commodore and Fedor Tyutin. All have been solid contributors.
Just since January, Howson has added solid veterans Antoine Vermette, Chris Gratton and Jason Williams - without subtracting any bodies from the stretch run. Those three have added depth on the ice, and confidence on and off it.
"Everybody in this locker room is starting to get prepared. We really want to get into the playoffs," said Williams, who won the Cup with Detroit in 2002. "A playoff run for a city that hasn't had one is a chance for so much more excitement. Fans will realize how fun the playoffs are."
-The young guys are the club's backbone.
Hitchcock said those who doubt the Blue Jackets aren't looking at the team's "sum of parts" - a Hitchcockism for depth, and a blend of vets and youngsters.
But it's the kids that are the club's lifeblood. The 20-year-old Mason, of course, is Exhibit A. But youngsters Jake Voracek (nine goals, 23 assists), Derick Brassard (10 goals, 15 assists through 31 games before missing the rest of the season with a dislocated shoulder) and Nikita Filatov (a hat trick and four goals in just eight games before going back to the minors for more seasoning) should be around for future stretch runs.
Oh, and the captain, Nash, has 186 career goals in six full seasons - and is just 24 years old.
"So far, our young guys have really carried us," Gratton said.
The fans have noticed. Excitement in the building is up and so is attendance, with sellouts expected for many of the games in the final weeks.
The players, meanwhile, are ready to make the first time a memorable one.
"It's the greatest test in professional sports," forward Michael Peca said of the post-season. "Anytime you have an opportunity to be a part of it, you have to take it pretty seriously."