COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - It might be the most important regular-season game in Columbus Blue Jackets history - or maybe just the end of a remarkable turnaround.
When they host the Nashville Predators on Saturday night in the final game on their schedule, the Blue Jackets still hold out hope of making the Stanley Cup playoffs.
``We were just talking in the back, the coaches, and our players have earned this opportunity,'' coach Todd Richards said after Thursday night's 3-1 win at Dallas. ``Granted, we still need some help, but it's going to make for a great environment on Saturday in our building. I'm sure the fans are going to be loud and behind us. The players have earned that - and I think the fans have earned it, too.''
For fans used to a team playing out the string, this has been a welcome jolt of optimism. The club was 30th of the 30 NHL teams a year ago, and was trolling the depths of the league two months ago.
Since then, the doubters have been quieted.
``All the people who doubt you, you know, let `em doubt,'' said forward Cam Atkinson, who had two goals in the victory over the Stars. ``All that matters is the guys in the locker room and what we're doing.''
What they're doing is almost incomprehensible for followers of the team, annually one of the worst in the NHL.
On Feb. 26, the Blue Jackets had the worst record in the league (5-12-2). Since then they have gone 18-5-5 to vault into a tie with Minnesota with 53 points for the eighth and final playoff spot in the West heading into Friday night's action.
In order to make the playoffs, the Blue Jackets must beat floundering Nashville while seventh-place Detroit (54 points) loses its regular-season finale in regulation at Dallas, also on Saturday and at the same time.
That, however, would end the Red Wings' 21-year string of making the playoffs, something the veterans in Hockeytown have vowed won't happen on their watch.
Columbus also has a long shot of making it in if Minnesota manages just one point in its final two games, at home against Edmonton on Friday and at Colorado on Saturday. That would require a major collapse by the talented Wild, who can clinch a postseason spot with one win of any variety. And that option could already be eliminated before the Blue Jackets take the ice for the final game of their 12th season.
So rest assured that the Blue Jackets will be keeping an eye on the scores from Dallas. And they'll be rooting like crazy for the Stars.
``Dallas? Yeah, hopefully they do us a favor,'' said Pittsburgh castoff Mark Letestu, who became the Blue Jackets' goals leader with his 13th, the game-winner in the third period, against the Stars.
The primary emphasis is on taking care of their own business.
``First, we worry about ourselves,'' said forward Marian Gaborik, acquired from the New York Rangers at the trade deadline. ``But everybody gets on the phone after a game and watches the scores around the league, what's going on. That's just the nature.''
No one will have to check their phones. A capacity crowd at Nationwide Arena will undoubtedly be tuned into the happenings at American Airlines Center.
Even if they fall short, the Blue Jackets have gained from the experience of winning and contending. They've also piled up some eye-popping numbers during their rejuvenation.
- They were 2-4-2 at home at one time, but are 11-1-3 since.
- They were 2-8-0 in first 10 road games but went 8-4-2 in their last 14, including 7-2-0 in the last nine.
- Sergei Bobrovsky, the front-runner to win the Vezina Trophy as the NHL's top goaltender, was 3-6-3 with an .898 save percentage and a 2.90 goals-against average through February. Since then he is 17-5-3, .946 and 1.62.
Now the season comes down to one night.
``We're going to have to do it again on Saturday. It's going to be a great crowd and a great opportunity and it's going to be a lot of fun,'' center Brandon Dubinsky said. ``The job's not done but we gave ourselves an opportunity.''
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