Only two major sports leagues have franchises that have never made the playoffs. That changed on April 8 because the Columbus Blue Jackets solidified their first playoff berth with a 4-3 shootout victory over the Chicago Blackhawks. The only unfortunate element for the Jackets franchise is that the man responsible for bringing a National Hockey League team to Columbus will not be there to see it.
But, for every death, there is a sign of life. Thanks to the Jackets making their first postseason appearance, a 19-year-old kid gets his first taste of the playoffs. Ryan Salmons, signed last March, now gets to enjoy what could be the young man's final wish. Salmons is one of thousands of flag-carrying fans that have been longing to see the Blue Jackets in the playoffs. What seemed like a dream through some dreadful years will become a reality in about a week from now.
For the Blue Jackets, this season has been a real roller coaster ride. This past summer, goaltender Pascal Leclaire was inked to a three-year extension worth just over $11M. Leclaire was 4-6-1 in October before falling victim to yet another ankle injury. Enter a 20-year-old kid from Oakville, Ontario named Steve Mason. Since then, all Mason has done is go 32-18-7 with a 2.22 GAA and 10 shutouts. After the postseason, Mason will likely be given the Calder Memorial Trophy for the NHL's rookie of the year.
For those unfamiliar with the National Hockey League playoffs, the goaltender is the most important player on the ice. For those that are familiar with the NHL second season, you can just skim this paragraph while nodding and shaking your head. The 2008 Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings got a great performance from Chris Osgood, who posted a 14-4 record with a 1.55 GAA. The 2007 Stanley Cup champion Mighty Ducks of Anaheim saw J.S. Giguere post a 13-4 record with a 1.97 GAA. The same Giguere that sent the 2003 Stanley Cup finals to seven games with a 15-6 record and a 1.62 GAA en route to winning the Conn Smythe Trophy. The Conn Smythe has only been awarded five times to a member of the losing team in the Stanley Cup finals. Four of those players were goaltenders. The Blue Jackets hope that Steve Mason can duplicate the 2006 performance of Cam Ward. At the age of 22, Ward posted a 15-8 record and a 2.14 GAA to lead the Carolina Hurricanes to the Stanley Cup.
No doubt all of those goaltenders got a lot of help from the players in front of them, but it is on the masked man to stop the puck. If the Jackets are going to have postseason success, it starts with Steve Mason. Mason is heading in to some uncharted waters, however. Mason played 78 games with the London Knights during the 2006-2007 season, but nothing compares to the grind of an NHL season. Not to mention, Mason had a bout with mononucleosis during the month of January that may have dated as far back as in December.
Without going into a whole season review, which will undoubtedly be a piece I will write at the conclusion of the playoffs for the Blue Jackets, I would be remiss if I did not mention a few things about the season that got Columbus into the playoffs. As my Hockey Insider co-host Tom Kennish commented to me the other day, "Howson has the Midas touch". No doubt about it. Without the offseason acquisitions of Fedor Tyutin, Christian Backman, R.J. Umberger, Raffi Torres and Mike Commodore, the Jackets probably are not celebrating a playoff berth. To top it off, the in-season acquisitions of Jason Williams and Antoine Vermette have been everything Howson could have imagined and more. Since February 18, Williams has point streaks of four, five, and six games and 21 points in 23 games. Antoine Vermette has 11 points in 14 games since being a trade deadline day pick-up on March 4.
Similar to the 2007 Cleveland Indians, the Columbus Blue Jackets seem to have a different hero every night. Eighteen different players have game winning goals. Raffi Torres leads the team with six, and five of them have come on February 26 or after. The Jackets have gotten clutch performances from backup goaltenders Dan LaCosta and Wade Dubielewicz along the way as well, including LaCosta's memorable win over the San Jose Sharks in his first NHL start on February 7.
With two games remaining in the NHL regular season, the Jackets are one point away, or losses from Anaheim and St. Louis, from clinching the 6th seed in the Western Conference and a date with the winner of the Northwest Division, either Calgary or Vancouver. When the matchup is set in stone, you can look for my series preview to run right here on TheClevelandFan.
In the meantime, check out the podcast of the Hockey Insider from April 9. Our league wide playoff preview will be covered on the show on April 15.