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Road run would have Blue Jackets thinking playoffs again

by | CBSSports.com Staff Writer
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R.J. Umberger's face still had visible evidence of the mishap that occurred when he celebrated on the ice with his Columbus Blue Jackets teammates.

Columbus had just scored the tying goal in the final minute against the Florida Panthers and Umberger was accidentally head-butted by an excited teammate in the ensuing scrum. But if there was any pain, it was long gone by the time Umberger had scored the decider in a 3-2 overtime victory.

Jackets captain Rick Nash would like to celebrate more goals like R.J. Umberger's OT winner. (AP)  
Jackets captain Rick Nash would like to celebrate more goals like R.J. Umberger's OT winner. (AP)  
The winner was a first for Umberger's career and a nice sendoff for someone rushing to catch a charter that would take him to witness the imminent birth of his child. But first, Umberger, like many of his teammates, felt like savoring a moment they say shows why they can still get to the playoffs.

No doubt some of the signs in the victory were encouraging, like the Jackets engineering a full-throttle last-gasp comeback in the second game of a back-to-back, and winning for only the third time in 23 games when trailing after two periods. The play of goalie Steve Mason on this particular night was also cause for optimism, and there was even the kind of lucky bounce going the Jackets' way during a scramble in front of their net, the kind of bounce the coach said might have ended up in the net a few weeks ago.

But a quick glance at the standings, with the Jackets sitting 13th in the West, provides a dose of reality that says a postseason berth is a long shot for this team.

Still, it is worth remembering that Columbus was in the conference's top four as late as Thanksgiving. And with teams so evenly matched this season, a three- or four-game streak either way can jump or drop you a half dozen places in the standings, so the Jackets aren't quite dead yet.

But there is the matter of digging out of this deep hole they're in, although Columbus hopes it started by picking up points in the past four games -- all of which required overtime -- and moving within five points of the final playoff spot with 35 games left to play.

"Right now we know it's a situation where every game is a must win, so that one was huge," Umberger said. "We're fighting every game, every shift but it's all about points now and we're finding a way to get them. This is a room that still believes."

Even someone like captain Rick Nash, the franchise face since he was drafted first overall in 2002, and now in the first season of an eight-year deal that will pay him $62.5 million. Columbus has been in only four playoff games during Nash's eight seasons, and the organization has not gone out of its way to upgrade the talent level around him in that time. But if the high-scoring left wing is frustrated by the situation, he's not letting on.

"As far as this season goes, we hit a skid where we got away from our system but the last five games we're coming around," Nash said. "We had a great start and thought it was going to be easy, but everything got harder.

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"It's tough for a new franchise to make some waves. But I think now we're finally getting our young guys to come through and we're starting to get some good free-agent signings coming in, which is the right direction. I've put a lot of time and commitment into this organization and they've invested a lot in me, so we'll try to find a way to get it done."

Even on the road, where much of the Jackets' early success this season came. After taking three of four points in a home-and-home series against the Detroit Red Wings on the weekend, Columbus took the dads along to Florida for an annual road trip and picked up a point in a shootout loss at Tampa before getting two from the Panthers in their first road win in seven tries.

That stat would seem more in line with expectations for the Jackets, who finished 14th in the West last season and did little more than minor tinkering in the summer. But an unusually strong start included a five-game winning streak on the road that started with a sweep on the West Coast and pushed the Jackets into the thick of the playoff picture. The Jackets weren't overwhelming anyone because only Nash was producing offense on a regular basis, but under rookie coach Scott Arniel, Columbus played with enough structure to improve dramatically on defense both at even strength and the penalty kill, and to find ways of winning tight games as a result.

Then the schedule got heavy.

"We had a very busy December, like everybody in the NHL and had 16 games so we didn't practice very often," Arniel said. "Our game really suffered because we got away from a lot of what we were doing well."

Of course Arniel noted that other teams "get better too as the year starts to grow" around the same time. But he added that the extra practice time, which Umberger described as having a training camp type of atmosphere, has shown its value in recent games. The power play, which ranks 28th in the league, has connected in four of the past five games, including Umberger's winner, and the 23rd-ranked penalty killers have been victimized only once in that time. Columbus has also cut down slightly on shots allowed on goal.

"You have to look at the positives and try to build on that," Umberger said. "It's a tough situation we're in, but we have to keep pushing."

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