It's been a long, hard road to the playoffs for the Columbus Blue Jackets, and their coach says keeping it simple has done the trick this season.
Columbus, under head coach Ken Hitchcock, is showing few signs of folding in the team's first real playoff run in its eight seasons of play. The only franchise never to make the NHL playoffs, the Blue Jackets are 39-28-7 as of March 27, sitting in sixth in the Western Conference.
If the Blue Jackets make the post-season for the first time, it may raise a chorus of "about time" from hockey fans elsewhere, but the team and its fans will justifiably be proud of an accomplishment that hasn't been without challenges this season.
The club has adapted to a switch in No. 1 goalies and losing the player pegged as their No. 2 centre, along with some long-term injuries to key depth players.
"To me, that's what makes me most proud, is that we were a team that had to change," Hitchcock told CBCSports.ca during a recent media conference call. "It was not easy, when we had all those injuries, to change, but we did it."
With injuries to Derrick Brassard, Fredrik Modin and Jason Chimera, the team has lacked a stable second line for much of the season, Hitchcock said. As a result, the Blue Jackets simplified their game, focusing on aggressive forechecking and a north-south orientation without frills.
The Blue Jackets are 7-1-1 in their last nine, with the lone regulation loss to the formidable Detroit Red Wings, a team they've given fits to in other games this season.
Hitchcock, who guided the Dallas Stars to the Stanley Cup in 1999, knows what it takes this time of the season and said he likes the "hunger" he's seeing from his players.
Columbus has scored 39 goals in its last 12 games, helping what had often been a stagnant offence improve to 18th in the NHL.
The Blue Jackets tend to get better as games wear on, with ascending goal totals in each of the three periods. The team has scored 81 times in the third period, eighth-best in the league.
One player who has made a big contribution in that regard is long-time Ottawa Senator Antoine Vermette, acquired at the March 4 trade deadline. Vermette has five goals and three assists in eight games for the Blue Jackets.
The change of scenery has rejuvenated Vermette, who is exhibiting the kind of two-way game he demonstrated last season, as opposed to his struggles earlier this season with Ottawa.
"He's very dependable defensively," Hitchcock said. "He's done a great job killing penalties. But more than anything, he's stabilized the centre-ice position that we have not had since Derek[Brassard] got hurt.
"And the chemistry between him and [R.J.] Umberger, for whatever reason, has been terrific since Day 1," Hitchcock added.
The increased offence of late has lessened the pressure a bit on goalie Steve Mason. The standout rookie has dominated much of the press that Columbus has garnered this year, as he leads the NHL with 10 shutouts after wresting the starting job from Pascal Leclaire, who was subsequently traded for Vermette.
Playing in front of Mason is maybe the most unheralded defensive corps of any NHL club still in the thick of things. Rostislav Klesla is the only one of the top four who is a Blue Jackets product, with Mike Commodore, Jan Hejda and Fedor Tyutin finding a home in Columbus after being cast off elsewhere.
Youngsters Kris Russell and Marc Methot round out the current six, with veteran Christian Backman waiting to get out of the bad books after a bad penalty in the Detroit loss.
"I think right now, we are the sum of parts back there," Hitchcock said. "We support each other and we're hard to play against. I think we have become much better lately because of Klesla. Klesla coming back [from injury] has given us four defending defencemen, and all of them can move the puck pretty well, and it makes that group of four hard to play against."
Offensive leader Rick Nash, who has waited longer than anyone other than Klesla on Columbus for a taste of the playoffs, is relishing the drive to get there.
Nash has 11 goals and 12 assists in the last 19 games and is on pace for career highs in goals and assists. The left-winger may be the most indispensable player in the league, in that it's hard to envision his club anywhere near the playoff picture without him.
But the Blue Jackets aren't safe yet. They rank worst in the NHL on the power play and have eight games left with which to maintain or improve upon what is currently a five-point margin of error separating them from the final playoff spot.
It will be up to Hitchcock to make sure his charges have the appetite to make the post-season dream a reality.