Jackets required: Blue Jackets season preview

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

"It was crazy," Jackets captain Rick Nash recalled. "Fans stood for the whole third period. It was awesome."

Awesome, it was. And though Game 4 ended with a 6-5 loss after a tough late penalty call, there was a new intensity on the ice and in the stands that night. It's something we in Columbus could get used to.

Jackets fans, that strange new feeling you've got? It's called high expectations.

The blink-and-you-missed-it first-round sweep in the playoffs might not have gotten the Blue Jackets a lot of respect in the hockey world, but it did get a monkey off the team's back.

"At this time the last eight years, everyone was asking, 'Is this the year you're gonna make it?' " said Nash. "I haven't heard that question this year, which is kind of nice."

The Jackets reached the playoff plateau largely on the back of rookie goaltender Steve Mason, who replaced an injured Pascal Leclaire and shouldered a remarkable workload last season.

The quick exit was painful, but the Jackets are now a playoff team, and one that's improving, as evidenced by coach Ken Hitchcock's training camp slogan: "On the Rise."

"Now our expectations are even higher," Nash echoed. "We've got to get to the playoffs, and we've got to make some noise when we get there."

The Jackets look like a team who will be plenty noisy for a long time. If you'd like to jump on the bandwagon while it's still cool, this season might be your last chance.

Franchise cornerstone Nash made that apparent when he signed an eight-year, $62.4 million contract extension. He had a year left on his current contract, and rumors were rampant that Nash's hometown Toronto Maple Leafs were salivating over him.

"It was something that, if it didn't get done before the season, it could have been a pretty big distraction," Nash said.

Yeah, ask a Cleveland Cavs fan how they feel about LeBron James' contract going into this season, and you'll get the idea.

But Nash's signing opened the floodgates for Blue Jackets GM Scott Howson, who spearheaded a flurry of contract extensions - including centers Derick Brassard and Antoine Vermette - that glues together the Jackets' core for years to come.

This leaves Nash leading a young, skilled team peppered with veterans. "I haven't changed much from when I was 18, you know, I'm still the same guy," said Nash. "I've gained a lot of the guys' respect [because] I haven't changed who I am."

It's a good time to be a hockey fan in Columbus. And if you aren't yet, it's a good time to become one.