Eighty games are in the books, and the Blue Jackets are enjoying an established playoff berth. A few games ago, focus was on maintaining a tenacious grip on the last wild card slot. Now holding the first wild card position, Columbus is in a two game race with the Flyersfor the third slot in the Metro. Tonight, the the Blue Jackets catch Tampa Bay on the back half of a back-to-back, while Philadelphia visits Pittsburgh tomorrow. Columbus wraps up against Florida tomorrow night, while the Flyers end against Carolina on Sunday. Given that Philadelphia secretly would prefer to play Pittsburgh over the Rangers, given past results, I'm predicting the Blue Jackets gain the third slot.
If you polled most Blue Jackets fans, they would likely tell you that they are hoping for a good showing in the playoffs -- perhaps a series win in the first round, with two series wins stretching the bounds of reasonable expectations. National media are somewhat more optimistic, as they understand the trouble that a tenacious team with solid goal-tending and enough skill to be dangerous can cause in the Stanley Cup race. Still, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone with a blood alcohol level within legal limits who would characterize the Blue Jackets as serious Cup contenders this year.
Not so fast. Through the magic of a little analysis, some sleight of hand and a little luck, I have discovered the happy path -- a veritable Yellow Brick Road that leads from Nationwide Boulevard to Lord Stanley's home in several rational steps. Ready? We're off . . .
Conquering the East
Assuming that the Blue Jackets gain that third slot in the Metro, the first round pairings would be Detroit vs. Boston, Tampa Bay vs. Montreal, Columbus vs. New York and Philadelphia vs. Pittsburgh. Detroit has had Boston's number all season, winning three of the four contests, including a 6 - 1 shellacking. With Datsyuk back, the story continues, and Detroit moves on. Similarly, Tampa Bay enjoyed a 3 - 1 series advantage over the Canadiens, and the Stamkos factor will override the Bishop injury. The last Canadian team falls and Tampa moves on.
It's a familiar theme on the other side of the bracket. Philadelphia has a 3 -1 record vs. the Penguins this season, and Marc-Andre Fleury is not stellar in the playoffs. History repeats here, and the Flyers move on to the second round. Finally, the Blue Jackets and Rangers have played to a stand-off this season, with each team winning twice. This is the closest call from the numbers, but the emotion and Bobrovsky carry the day here, so Columbus moves on.
Round two pits Detroit against Tampa Bay, and here the Red Wings' miracle bubble bursts. The Lightningwon four of the five games between the squads this year, and nothing will change here. Tampa Bay to the Eastern final. The Blue Jackets then face Philadelphia, enjoying the home ice advantage. They also enjoyed a 3 -1 edge in the season series. Mason. High glove. Columbus moves on.
In an Eastern Final that few would have projected, the Lightning and the Blue Jackets face-off. Although Tampa Bay has the home ice advantage, there are so many Central Ohio residents with second addressess in Florida, it will be a virtual stand-off in fan noise. More importantly, the Lightning have not beaten the Blue Jackets yet this year. History repeats, and the Blue Jackets win the East.
Meanwhile Out West
Assuming that the playoff picture in the West remains as it currently stands, Round One features Dallas vs. Anaheim, Los Angeles vs. San Jose, Chicago vs. St. Louis and Colorado vs. Minnesota. Dallas has beaten Anaheim in two of their three meetings this season, and will be ready after a tight run to the playoffs. Teemu Selanne runs out of gas. The Stars advance. The Kings have had the Sharks' number in the regular season, and even Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau won't be able to change that. LA moves on.
On the other side of the bracket, St. Louis will be scared into reversing their current slump by a Ken Hitchcock scowl. Their physical game and tenacity will wear down a physically fragile Blackhawks team. The Bluesheld the season edge, and will win this one as well. St. Louis advances. Minnesota has had a great season, but Varlamov will outdo Bryzgalov, and Colorado's 4-1 regular season edge will hold here. The Avalanche advance easily.
Round two has Dallas facing Los Angeles and St. Louis taking on Colorado. Dallas took the season series 2-1, and Benn/Sequin outdo Carter/Gaborik. The Stars move to the finals. St. Louis has dominated the Avalance this season, winning three of four. With Ryan Miller & Co. , the Blues advance.
Dallas and St. Louis square off in the finals. They split the season series with two games apiece, so this one boils down to the intangibles. The speed and skill of the Seguin/Benn combination will be slightly too much for the Blues, who fall in seven. The Stars advance to play for the Cup.
Bringing It Home
The Dallas Stars vs. Columbus Blue Jackets in the Stanley Cup Finals has the bookies counting their money and the network executives slitting their wrists. However, the clubs play entertaining hockey, and the bedlam of Nationwide Arena will be something to behold. Dallas has not beaten the Blue Jackets, so there's no reason to think they'll find success in this pressure cooker. Lord Stanley's Cup comes to Columbus!
There you have it. A series of documented, logical steps that lead to the inevitable conclusion that the Cup will reside at Nationwide Boulevard & Front Street come June. It is as simple as following the Yellow Brick road from Kansas to Oz. Wait . . . do they have hockey in Kansas?
Never mind. Just don your ruby slippers, click your heels together and repeat after me . . . "There's no place like Nationwide . . . "