COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -January and February can be a busy time for the Columbus Blue Jackets - for all the wrong reasons.
There are early spring tee times to make, booking flights home the day after the last regular-season game and finding someone to sublet apartments from April to August.
Maybe not this year, however.
Of all things, the Blue Jackets - the only NHL team to never reach the postseason - find themselves in the midst of the race for the playoffs.
``We know we have a lot of work ahead of ourselves but it's pretty exciting for our players to know that we're in the middle of this mess with everybody else,'' coach Ken Hitchcock said Monday. ``We're right in the battle here to go up the ladder if we can continue to play well, but one bad week and you're really behind the eight ball. I think it's going to be like this the rest of the year. It's going to be close.''
Heading into this week's games, the 7-year-old franchise is off to its best season at 21-18-6. The best previous mark at this stage was 17-22-6 in 2002-2003. Considering the club has never come close to having a winning record, that in itself is an accomplishment.
But with 48 points, the Blue Jackets are also in the thick of a premature - the season's barely half over - playoff chase. They stand 10th in the Western Conference, just six points out of a tie for fourth and only three points back of the No. 8 spot currently held by Colorado.
Again, if this were late March all of that might mean far more. But for a club that's never been closer than 23 points to the last team to make the playoffs, the surprising run has created a buzz. A small buzz, but a buzz nonetheless.
``They worked extremely hard and they were focused on this hockey game,'' St. Louis coach Andy Murray said after the Blue Jackets scored three goals in the final six minutes of a 6-4 win last Friday night.
One night later, the Blue Jackets came back to beat their nemesis, Nashville, 2-1 in a shootout. The Predators had won the last 12 games with the Blue Jackets.
The hockey club's rally has been some solace for all those Buckeyes fans with broken hearts after another BCS national championship game defeat.
Hitchcock, who won a Stanley Cup with Dallas in 1999 and took over the foundering Blue Jackets midway through last season, implemented his defense-and-grit game plan and Columbus has thrived. Whether it was a natural progression by a promising player or being steeped in Hitch's philosophy, goaltender Pascal Leclaire has blossomed.
Leclaire, a former first-round pick who's only 25, has an NHL-best seven shutouts and is among the league-leaders with a 2.00 goals-against average. Still, the shutout-artist himself was shut out of the All-Star game.
``I wanted to go. I'm honest. I thought I had a good chance to go, but it went the other way,'' he said. ``But at the same time what's going on here in Columbus is way more important to me than to go to Atlanta for a couple of days and doing all that p.r. stuff.''
His teammates are angered by the slight.
``He's our all-star and our most valuable player here,'' said Columbus' representative to the game later this month, leading-scorer Rick Nash. ``He's got nothing to worry about, though. He's going to be there in years to come.''
So will Nash, picked for his third All-Star game in four seasons. He has 23 goals and 38 points, his best numbers since sharing the Rocket Richard Trophy for most goals (41) with Calgary's Jarome Iginla and Atlanta's Ilya Kovalchuk in 2003-2004.
l play and selfishness.
Nobody wanted the problem child, however.
Now MacLean's replacement, Scott Howson, has benefited from Zherdev's development into a team player. After slogging his way to 10 goals in 71 games a year ago, Zherdev has 17 in 45 games.
The Blue Jackets are averaging 14,274 in attendance per game, down more than 2,000 from last year's attendance, although crowds have been bigger the past few weeks.
``We needed to get the city's attention, to get people back and energized and excited about the way we're playing,'' Hitchcock said. ``I think we're starting to do that now. To me, we had a big job ahead of us. The league is one thing, to earn back the respect, but we had a bigger job ahead of us in earning the respect of our fans.''
So far, so good.

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