It was some time in late February -- he can’t remember exactly when -- his team languishing with only five wins in the opening 19 or 20 games of this season, when Todd Richards phoned old pal Claude Noel.
The two had coached together at AHL Milwaukee, and at this point, Richards was at his wits’ end trying to find a way to turn things around with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
“That was hard coaching. I don’t remember coaching ever being that hard, and really not that much fun,” Richards told ESPN.com on Tuesday. “I reached out to Claude one day and talked to him for about a half-hour. I don’t even know if I was asking questions; it was just to talk, really. But it was helpful at this point. It really was.”
Six weeks later, it’s Richards who would be the one giving pep talks to his coaching buddies in the fraternity.
A March 3 win over the Colorado Avalanche began a 15-4-3 stretch for the Jackets, perhaps the unlikeliest of events anyone in the hockey world would have dreamed up this season.
“We’re still surprising people, which is always nice,” veteran Jackets defenseman Adrian Aucoin told ESPN.com on Tuesday.
It comes in a year in which the Jackets replaced the general manager in-season with the understanding that life after Rick Nash was going to be a patient, brick-by-brick approach.
And while new GM Jarmo Kekalainen is still going to build this team long term through the draft, in the short term, the cast he inherited has stunned everyone by challenging for a playoff spot.
The odds remain stacked against them; the Jackets play four road games before wrapping things up at home April 27 against the Nashville Predators.
“It’s going to be a great test,” Richards said. “Anaheim, L.A., San Jose, Dallas and then home to Nashville -- there’s some great teams there, and we’re on the road for most of it. But I believe that the struggles we had early on made us stronger and better [able] to deal with what’s ahead of us now.”
What gives with these Jackets? How are they winning like this?
“Balanced attack with their top three lines,” a Western Conference head coach told ESPN.com via text message Tuesday. “Seem to have an all-in attitude and on the same page as far the style of play; defensive mindset first. Goalie is playing lights-out. And they have that belief that they can win because of that. They play hard and are on the right side of that feeling.”
Ah yes, the goalie.
Sergei Bobrovsky, discarded by the Philadelphia Flyers, has been out of this world for the Jackets, and it will be a shock if he’s not at least nominated for the Vezina Trophy.
Aucoin has seen this movie before. Last season he was in Phoenix when Mike Smith delivered an unbelievable performance all year. It instills great confidence in the players in front of that kind of goaltending.
“You just play a better, easier game when you know that your goalie is playing the way Bob is playing,” Aucoin said. “It’s unreal right now how easy he makes it look.
“And I can tell you he’s as dedicated a player as I’ve ever played with. Which is amazing, because I played with some pretty dedicated players in my career.”
Not to oversimplify things, but what Bobrovsky is doing in net has allowed the rest of the team to grow.
“The big thing he’s done for our team is he’s just given our whole team confidence,” Richards said. “That’s what that one position can do to a team. It’s no different than in baseball when you have your ace of the pitching staff taking the mound; you go in with a different feeling that day. It gives everyone else confidence. That’s what Bobby has really done. He’s played great and he deserves all things people are talking about in terms of maybe awards at the end of the year. He’s earned that. But the big thing for our team even more than the big save here and there is the confidence that it gives everyone else to go out and play.”
(As a side note, contract negotiations are ongoing between the Jackets and Bobrovsky’s camp. He’s a restricted free agent after the season.)
This is a confident bunch. Case in point: Monday night in Denver. The Avs scored with 2:02 left in the third period to go up 3-2 on the visiting Jackets. Two months ago, that would have deflated Columbus. Instead, R.J. Umberger tied the game with 1:27 to go, and Nick Foligno scored in overtime to cap yet another thrilling night for the never-say-die Jackets -- just another example of the character that has developed on this team.
“[That] sums up the way we’ve been feeling here the last couple of months,” Aucoin said.
“It’s the perseverance, dealing with adversity, and we’ve had to deal with a lot of adversity this year,” Richards echoed. “That brings out the character in people, and I think it also makes you stronger as long as you deal with it the right way.”
Richards' role in all this also should not be overlooked. At 5-12-2 earlier this season, things easily could have gone off the rails. But the coach and his staff kept the players committed and focused when it appeared to be another lost season. Tip of the hat to Richards for that.
Their remaining schedule suggests the Jackets will probably fall short. But would you bet against them at this point?
“Well, the odds haven’t looked good for us since day one,” Aucoin said. “We’re definitely up for the task.”