COLUMBUS, Ohio - Six weeks after it appeared their playoff hopes were dead in the water, the Columbus Blue Jackets are suddenly one of the hottest teams on ice.
They've won four of five games and picked up points in eight of nine. They woke up on Thursday morning in the heat of the chase for a playoff spot in the wild, wild West.
"More fans are coming up to us," backup goalie Mathieu Garon said. "The comments are that they're really proud of what we're doing, the way we're working right now. So, it's good. We feel there's a little buzz around town and even here in the dressing room. It's the best time of the year."
Heading into Thursday's games, the Blue Jackets were one of eight teams separated by four points—all playing for the final four playoff spots in the West. With a record of 30-23-6 for 66 points, they find themselves just four points out of fifth place. Or, if you prefer, three points out of 13th in the conference.
"You're in fifth or sixth spot, you lose a couple of games and you're going to find yourself in 11th," said defenceman Rostislav Klesla. "It's weird. The league's gotten so competitive. Every team except one or two in each conference is still (in the post-season race). With the salary cap, all the rosters are evened up. That's how it plays out."
After a 4-3 home loss to the Phoenix Coyotes on Jan. 11—Columbus' fifth straight defeat—the Blue Jackets seemed destined for another dreary death march through February, March and April.
Since then, however, they've picked up points in 13 of 16 games and have won a franchise record six in a row on the road.
Like flipping a switch, several of the Blue Jackets have started playing exceedingly well.
Captain Rick Nash has been a beast with the puck. With 29 goals and 26 assists in 58 games, he's flirting with a point-a-game average. He's currently on a five-game points streak during which he has four goals and four assists. In a critical showdown with Nashville on Tuesday, he bull-rushed the net from the right wing, held off a defender and muscled his way in for the goal to break a scoreless deadlock in the third period. He later added another goal in the feel-good, 4-0 win.
Goalie Steve Mason seemingly lost his way after being the league's rookie of the year and leading the Blue Jackets to their first and only trip to the playoffs two years ago. But he's suddenly regained his touch. He had the shutout against Nashville, one of two he's had over his last seven games. Over that span, he's 6-1-0 with a 1.58 goals-against average and a .949 save percentage.
Defencemen Marc Methot, Kris Russell and Fedor Tyutin, forwards R.J. Umberger, Derek MacKenzie and Antoine Vermette and rookies Matt Calvert (six goals, three assists in 19 games) and Grant Clitsome (three goals, nine assists in 17 games) have all helped turn things around.
First-line centre Derick Brassard (bruised hand) and wing Kristian Huselius (lower body), along with Klesla (knee), are sidelined but expected to return for the stretch run. The Blue Jackets host Phoenix again on Friday, before embarking on a critical five-game road trip against West foes.
The NHL's trade deadline is Monday at 3 p.m. ET. That's usually a busy day for the Blue Jackets, but they're usually unloading veteran talent, instead of acquiring it for a push to the playoffs.
General manager Scott Howson has been working the phones looking for deals. A player such as Garon would typically be very marketable—a quality veteran who will be an unrestricted free agent after the season.
But instead of worrying about being traded, Garon is worried about the outcome of games involving the teams ahead of the Blue Jackets.
"It is hard to figure. Yesterday, I was watching Anaheim and L.A. and you don't know who you want to win that game," he said with a grin. "At the same time, we can only control our points and that's what we're doing right now."
With 23 games left, there is little margin for error. Somebody else in such a tight race is always winning. And the Blue Jackets have to keep up.
"We've got to keep doing the things we're doing," first-year coach Scott Arniel said. "We need to keep playing hard, like we have been. We've got to be at our best. Every game's a big game. Every time we put on our jerseys, there's always something on the line."