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For a change, Blue Jackets fans are optimistic

AP - Sports

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- The top three topics on sports talk shows in this city are usually Ohio State football, Ohio State football recruiting and Ohio State football's spring practices.

The Columbus Blue Jackets haven't upset that pecking order, although they are elbowing their way into the conversation.

''The cultural change has settled in a little bit in the fact that we're just not a hockey team in the NHL, we're a good hockey club in this league,'' said John Davidson, director of hockey operations.

Dead last in the league early in the NHL's shortened last season, the Blue Jackets suddenly found the winning touch. They went 19-5-5 down the stretch, energizing their fan base and falling just short of the playoffs while shocking a lot of opponents used to walking over the 12-year-old franchise.

''We worked hard to gain that notoriety and that respect from everybody,'' forward Nick Foligno said. ''We should run with that. It shouldn't be something we should be afraid of or worried about.''

Here are five things to keep an eye on with the Blue Jackets:

BIG ADDITION: The club went out and pulled a bit of a stunner when it signed free agent Nathan Horton to a hefty seven-year, $37.1-million deal. Horton, who will be out until at least December after shoulder surgery, is a hard worker who has a knack for being in the middle of the action.

''I want to bring what I can to the team: scoring goals, battling, putting pucks on the net like a power forward does,'' Horton said. ''But I'll do anything it takes, wherever I'm slotted and wherever the coach wants me to play. I'll be happy to do it because I want to be in the playoffs and everybody else does and we've got the team to do it.''

THAT 'P' WORD: The Blue Jackets have only made the playoffs once (2009) in their 12 seasons - and were swept in four games.

They've talked about the postseason before, but that was just whistling past the Stanley Cup. Now they're serious.

''We expect nothing short of being in the playoffs this year,'' forward R.J. Umberger said. ''That's our goal.''

THE BACKSTOP: The Blue Jackets picked up goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky from Philadelphia for the equivalent of a bag of pucks 15 months ago - three middling draft picks. He made Scott Howson, since fired as GM, look like a genius. Or a thief.

The Russian, who just turned 25 last week, went 21-11-6, had a 2.00 goals-against average and a .932 save percentage to win the Vezina Trophy, emblematic of the NHL's best goalie, going away.

The big question is: Was last year an anomaly or is he a franchise goalie for years to come?

''Bob is Bob,'' coach Todd Richards said. ''I have no doubt he can do it again.''

WHERE THE GOALS ARE: The Blue Jackets elected not to re-sign 38-year-old winger Vinny Prospal, who led the team with 30 points a year ago. Almost everyone else who scored last year is back.

Marian Gaborik has scored at least 30 goals seven times in a glittering NHL career. He had offseason surgery to repair a torn muscle in his abdomen and now says he's healthy and happy heading into the last year of his contract.

If he has a typical year - along with veterans Foligno, Umberger, Mark Letestu, Brandon Dubinsky, Blake Comeau and Artem Anisimov and youngsters Cam Atkinson, Matt Calvert, Ryan Johansen and maybe rookie Boone Jenner all blossom as expected - goals shouldn't be a problem.

GO EAST: The Blue Jackets and the Detroit Red Wings move to the Eastern Conference this year, eliminating a lot of West Coast games with fans unable to stay up that late, let alone those dreadful red-eye flights.

Columbus relishes going up against the likes of the New York Rangers, with whom they've made blockbuster deals the past two years involving Rick Nash and Gaborik, along with the nearby Pittsburgh Penguins and Buffalo Sabres.

''This going to the East in the new divisional concept, it's going to be a difficult time for any of these teams to make the playoffs,'' said Davidson, the former goaltender and announcer who rebuilt the St. Louis Blues before coming to Columbus. ''It's going to be a real battle. We have to have an understanding that, 'OK, we can be good and we can outwork teams because that's our M.O.' And we have some pretty good talent.

''So I like our chances.''

---

Follow Rusty Miller on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/RustyMillerAP

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