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How the Columbus Blue Jackets are muscling their way toward the playoffs

Montreal Canadiens' Max Pacioretty, right, fights with Columbus Blue Jackets' Ryan Johansen during first period NHL hockey action in Montreal, Thursday, March 20, 2014.


Hockey has its own vernacular, and one of the more recent terms to come into vogue is "heavy."

Beyond the literal sense, it has come to summarize a relentless, grinding, physical style.

Or as Columbus Blue Jackets defenceman James Wisniewski put it: "By the third period, hopefully, the other team doesn't want to play any more."

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Heavy hockey is primarily the province of big, fast, hard-fore-checking Western Conference teams such as the Los Angeles Kings, Chicago Blackhawks and San Jose Sharks.

Given the Blue Jackets played in the West until this season, it stands to reason they imported that style in their switch to the Eastern Conference – where the Boston Bruins are pretty much the only team that can plausibly claim to the heavy tag.

And would you look at that – since Jan. 1, only the Bruins have a better record among East teams than the Jackets, who are physically the third-heaviest team, on average, in the conference.

Going into Thursday's tilt with the Montreal Canadiens, the bubble-dwelling Blue Jackets (they were tied for the final playoff spot with the Washington Capitals when the night started) had won more games in 2014 than all but four teams: Stanley Cup contenders Boston, St. Louis and San Jose and fellow upstarts Colorado.

With their mix of youth and talent backstopped by reigning Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky, this is not a team you want to meet in the playoffs.

Witness top centre Ryan Johansen, a broad-shouldered 6-foot-3, 223-pounder who is as fleet as any 5-foot-9 water bug and can stickhandle through tight spaces as if he was born to it. He's 21.

Johansen also has an ornery streak – his highlights from Thursday include a glorious dangle around Montreal's Jarred Tinordi, a chip-off-the-boards spin pass to himself, a boarding penalty, a cross-checking penalty and a fight with Max Pacioretty.

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You might also point to winger Boone Jenner, another power player who had a trio of scoring chances in the first 10 minutes Thursday – he's 6-foot-2, tops 220 pounds, and is 20. Jenner likes to employ the direct approach, which is probably why he's on the top line; it's the approach that typifies the team.

"We play a pretty simple game, which is why we probably don't get the credit we deserve," Wisniewski said after a morning practice.

The list of young talent goes on: winger Artem Anisimov (25), 18-goal forward Cam Atkinson (24), defencemen Dalton Prout (24), David Savard (23) and Ryan Murray (20).

Supplemented by veteran scoring winger Nathan Horton (a Cup winner in Boston) and useful complements such as Wisniewski, winger Brandon Dubinsky and defenceman Jack Johnson, this is a team with plenty of skill.

"We're so deep that way, I usually describe it as we have three second lines," Johansen said before the game. As for his own play – he will likely become just the third 30-goal scorer in franchise history – the Vancouver native said: "I'm just getting to that point where I feel like I can be a difference-maker every night."

For the Blue Jackets to reach the playoffs for just the second time in the history of the team, they'll have to survive a gruelling final stretch of games.

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Because of the contest against Dallas that was interrupted when Stars forward Rich Peverley suffered a heart problem, Columbus is looking at eight games in 12 days to close out the season.

The last team to go through that long of a season-ending sequence: the 1979-80 Quebec Nordiques.

But the Jackets are undaunted by their position ("It's felt like the playoffs since January," Wisniewski said) and they're dreaming about a lot more than a mere playoff berth.

"Our goal going into the season was the win the Stanley Cup, and to do that first you have to make the playoffs," head coach Todd Richards said. "It's still our goal."

That may seem far-fetched, but in the wide-open East, crazy things are likely to happen in the postseason; having a little heft won't hurt.

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About the Author
National Correspondent

Sean Gordon joined the Globe's Quebec bureau in 2008 and covers the Canadiens, Alouettes and Impact, as well as Quebec's contingent of Olympic athletes. More


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