Maybe it's fatherhood.
Maybe it's my growing cynicism with large swaths of the world around me.
Maybe it's my age.
For whatever reason, I've been a sports cynic for a big chunk of the last four years. As I'm sure you remember, I wrote just slightly over a month ago that I was pretty sure this team wasn't going to make the playoffs. I embraced my inner Randy Quaid from Major League 2. As every game in the points-streak mounted, in the back corners of my brain I kept saying, "Don't worry, they'll blow it."
It wasn't that I *wanted* them to blow it. I think I just didn't want to allow myself to let my guard down enough to get crushed again. In the spring of 2011, I bought in. The team had a rough winter, but they were rallying. They made some moves at the deadline. And then the bottom fell out.
I pushed ALL of my chips into the center of the table in the summer of 2011. Scott Howson went for broke. This was the year Rick Nash finally got to play in some meaningful playoff games. I don't need to go over that again.
And so, here came this year. I had no expectations. The team started out 5-12-2, and they were right where I thought they'd be. They weren't horrible, but they certainly didn't look anywhere close to a playoff team. But that was okay with me. They were building toward something further off in the horizon somewhere, and at least they were taking steps forward instead of repeatedly sliding backward.
And then, March happened.
Tangentially, I'm going to tell you all that I'm a fan of the University of Michigan. I know that doesn't sit well with most Columbus residents, but it is what it is. March was a crazy month for me. The two teams that I follow that were playing were the Jackets, and the Michigan basketball team. And, more than you might think, they became mirror images of one another.
So, too, did my perceptions become mirror images of one another. And, it's with all of that in hindsight that I can say:
I was wrong about this Blue Jackets squad. And here's why.
Much like that Michigan basketball team that came within a crazy bearded bench player's four straight three pointers of a national championship, this Jackets team has something that can't be quantified: they play hard for each other. If you followed the Michigan basketball run like I did (which I know isn't likely), you know that, beyond having the player of the year, they had a team of guys who truly loved each other and laid everything on the floor for each other each game. They found ways to win games they probably shouldn't have, and you simply couldn't count them out in any game in the tournament.
The Jackets of the past eight weeks have been that club. I could only speculate as to the changes in the dressing room between last year and this year, but whatever has happened has taken root far faster than almost anyone probably could have imagined.
Michigan had Trey Burke; the Jackets have Sergei Bobrovsky. Having that *one* player can cover up a lot of weaknesses. In fairness, Burke didn't play well in the NCAA tournament, but there were a great many games throughout the season in which Burke willed that team to baskets and to wins. To say that Bobrovsky hasn't played a similar role for the Jackets would be crazy. There were games they had no business winning in which Bob simply willed them to win. He's also, much like Burke, played his way into the inside track for a best-at-his-position trophy.
The rest of the Michigan team was a mish-mash of young, unproven guys with high ceilings combined with some saavy veterans that were character guys. While not a one-to-one comparison, the parallels are very strong for me. There were times where the Michigan basketball team had to overcome adversity. They faced tough teams, came close, and lost. They lost games they should have won. But, they learned something from each game. In some ways, they learned how to win along the way. And, at the end of the day, those young guys grew up at the right time, and took a team that I had losing in the round of 32 all the way to the final game, and pretty damn close to a championship.
Much in the same way, this Jackets team has been learning how to win throughout this season. They lost 12 of their first 19 games in regulation, but were really only skated out of the barn a couple of times. They weren't scoring a ton, but you could see the development of the defensive system. You could see the improvement coming in Bobrovsky's game. And when he got hot, it allowed the rest of the team some cover. They started to come together as a unit. Instead of packing it in at the first sign of adversity, they let it slide off their backs and continued the fight.
They started playing good games against good teams, and then they simply started winning.
So, you can see how my overly cynical psyche has been completely broken down over the last month. Two teams, similar makeups, similar character, and making comparable runs when not too many people expected them to do so.
But, why was I wrong? Simply put, I underestimated the will of true character.
I pointed to stats, I looked at history and simply extrapolated. To wit:
Do any of us think that, if this team is desperate for points in the final seven games, that they can grab them on the road? I am not so confident.
Wow. Is there a more prophetic--and for all of the wrong reasons, I can admit--statement than this? I basically allowed myself not to get invested, because I assumed that there was no way this team was going to be able to win enough games on the road down the stretch to make a playoff push. Rather than get my heart broken--again--I simply chose to bury my head in the sand.
Boy, was I wrong about these Blue Jackets.
You all tried to convince me in the comments, pointing out that the majority of that road record came before the emergence of THE TOP COP ON THE FORCE. Then, they went to Nashville and got crushed, and finished a four-game road-trip 1-2-1. The team was at a fork in the road.
Then came two huge events: a thrilling OT victory against Anaheim, and the trade deadline. We discussed whether the Jackets should be buyers or seller, and I was opposed to making a big move if it meant parting with significant assets, including a first round pick. We can debate whether the players involved were considered full-on significant assets, but John Davidson and Jarmo Kelalainen pulled off a huge move in obtaining Marian Gaborik.
Regardless of the impact on the offense (I believe their goals-per-game has gone up .06 in 10 games with Gaby), the off-ice impact in the room had to be off the charts. Management rewarded these guys for their work by signaling that they were going for it. And, they went for it without damaging the long-term future of the team. It's like having your cake and eating it too.
10 games later (7-3-0), here we are. The Jackets have two games left. The game against Dallas on Thursday might be the biggest since the playoff-clincher in 2009 in Chicago. At this point, a home game against a Nashville team who has essentially been counting down to their tee times since the trade deadline is as close to a penciled-in win as this team can get. Which all points back to tomorrow's game in Dallas.
And that's the thing: regardless of how these last two games shake out, I'm not going to be heart-broken this time around. When Michigan lost that national championship game, I wasn't crushed. I was in this weird space, in which I chose not to focus on getting so close and losing, but instead on the journey. The ride was unbelievable. The ride was unifying. The ride was rewarding.
In short, The Ride Was Worth The Disappointment.
And, there it is. If the Jackets falter in these last two games and miss out on the playoffs, it will be a bummer, yes. But, the intangible things that we've seen during this run will far outweigh that disappointment for me. And that, at the end of the day, is why I was wrong about this team. I assumed they would be the same old Jackets. They would tantalize us just enough to get us invested, only to pack up shop and crush us again.
But not this team. Not this time.
Playoffs or not, the ripples of this season's push for relevance will be felt for years to come. They've built a solid foundation for future success. They've showed us that they can work hard. They've showed us that they play for each other. They've showed us that they are unflappable with each late-game clutch goal. They've showed us that culture CAN be changed. They've showed us that there's an organization in place that can attract big-name players. They've showed us that the future is bright.
And, most importantly, they've showed us that character MATTERS.
Never underestimate the will of a winner, and the ability of that will to rub off on others. Never underestimate the power of culture, and the power of chemistry and cohesiveness.
I did. And I was wrong.
Boy, was I wrong.
Thank you, Jackets, for showing me the error of my ways.