The Columbus Blue Jackets did it. They withstood an 82 game schedule, featuring a five game losing streak, an eight game winning streak, some dramatic shifts in levels of performance and enough tension to keep psychologists busy for years. They ended with a grueling gauntlet of eight games in twelve days -- which they ultimately turned to their advantage, going 5-2-1 over that stretch, clinching the first wild card slot in their inaugural year in the Eastern Conference. The final installment -- a 3 - 2 victory over a belligerent Florida Panther squad -- seemed an appropriate coda for a symphony that had put the fan base through the emotional wringer.
By the time the Blue Jackets took the ice in sunny Miami, they knew that their hopes of gaining the third slot in the Metro had been dashed by virtue of a soft overtime goal of epic proportions allowed by Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury in their game against the Flyers. That clinched the final automatic berth for Philadelphia, meaning that the contest against the Panthers was to clinch top wild card slot, and a first round draw against those same Penguins. More on that later.
If the Blue Jackets were disappointed by the developments in Pittsburgh, they did not show it in their performance on the ice. They came out with speed and tenacity. Just 47 seconds in, Matt Calvert, Brandon Dubinsky and Cam Atkinson entered the Florida zone three abreast, with speed. Calvert, on the left wing, forced the play, drawing a delayed penalty in the process. He then dumped the puck to Dubinsky in the middle, who immediately found Atkinson gliding in toward Roberto Luongo's left post. Atkinson snuck behind Ed Jovanovski and quickly deflected the puck into the net. A 1 - 0 lead before the patrons found their seats. Just the start the club wanted/needed.
Columbus truly dominated virtually the entire first period. They showed speed and possession, and only some nice saves by Luongo and some missed nets by the Blue Jackets kept it from being a rout. To be honest, however, the club was a bit schizophrenic, as the cogent effort in the offensive zone was not duplicated in the defensive end. Columbus welcomed back Nikita Nikitin, but sat Ryan Murray. The swap was not beneficial, as the Panthers were given far too much time and space in the offensive zone, creating some anxious moments, which Sergei Bobrovsky managed to handle with alacrity in the early going.
After the clubs spent most of the middle portions of the period swapping chances, with the Blue Jackets having the better of the exchange, one of the more bizarre sequences I've witnessed on NHL ice transpired. With just over three minutes left in the frame, Corey Tropp placed a good solid check on Jovanovski in the corner. As the play moved down to the Columbus offensive end, Jovanovski apparently lost his mind, as he proceeded to bludgeon Tropp to the ice in between the circles. The referee's hand went up immediately, so Jovanovski apparently decided to get his money's worth. He continued the assault, driving Trop head first into the ice. That triggered a general melee, and when the ice chips cleared, Jovanovski had a five minute major for elbowing, and a game misconduct. It was the most blatant such event of the night, but there was an element of thuggery to Florida's game, apparently engendered by the belief that the final game would bring no consequences. That remains to be seen. At one point, Brandon Dubinsky came out of a corner hit, apparently nursing his hand or wrist, and left the ice and went down the tunnel. The gulps from the coaching staff could be heard on television, but Dubinsky returned, apparently no worse for the wear. Whew.
The Blue Jackets have been stellar on the power play of late, and even when they have not tallied, they have been dangerous. Presented with a five minute, score-at-will opportunity, however, they climbed into their shell and displayed none of the seamless puck handling and movement that had characterized the extra man chances of late. Halfway through the power play, Cam Atkinson lost possession of the puck up high -- a cardinal sin -- and Vincent Trocheck took the gift and was off to the races. His backhand effort found the smallest of gaps between Bobrovsky's legs, and the puck trickled through the opening, and into the net. Tie game on a shorthanded effort -- not one to be proud of, on any level.
Still, the period ended with Columbus holding an 18-9 shot advantage, and 1:26 left in the Jovanovski major. That had to be good, didn't it?
Unfortunately, the second period began inauspiciously, as Columbus did nothing with the remaining portion of the power play. Feeling generous, they then embarked on a series of gift penalties -- Tyutin for holding at 4:19, Atkinson for tripping at 13:41 and Boll for tripping at 18:00 minutes. Although the Blue Jackets killed each of these opportunities, the combined momentum from the extra man situations and the successful killing of the Jovanovski major gave Florida palpable energy, and Columbus found itself on its heels for most of the period, as evidenced by the 17-6 shot deficit in the frame.
A perfect storm of mistakes gave the Panthers the lead at the 6:35 mark. Derek MacKenzie brought the puck up ice with speed, just as Fedor Tyutin exited the penalty box and joined MacKenzie and Letestu in an offensive rush. However, as the three entered the zone, MacKenzie lost the puck, which caromed off of Tyutin and directly to the Panthers. Behind the play, Jack Johnson and Nikita Nikitin were trying to change, and had to reverse course as Brandon Pirri shoveled the puck ahead to Jimmy Hayes for an odd man rush. Bobrovsky fell for Hayes' eye fake, suggesting pass, and opened up a narrow short side gap, which Hayes found for the go-ahead goal. Overall sloppiness.
However, the Blue Jackets were quick to respond, as they have done so often this year. At 8:19, Brad Boyes went off for holding, and the Blue Jackets showed the power play acumen that had eluded them earlier. In what was undoubtedly the last rush of the extra man situation, Jenner, Johansen and Tyutin entered the zone as a unit, with Letestu trailing. Jenner dumped the puck to Johansen, then continued right down the middle to the crease, perhaps encroaching a touch in the blue paint, but certainly attracting Luongo's attention. As Luongo went to cross check the trespasser, he dropped his stick, which may or may not have found its way under Jenner's skate. Johansen had found the charging Letestu with a laser cross-ice pass, and Letestu wasted no time in beating the distracted Luongo. For his part, Luongo put on a brief emotional protest for goaltender interference, but the officials were having none of it.
So, as the second wore down, it was a tie game, which was frankly better than the Blue Jackets deserved in this frame. The third period would determine whether Columbus could relax on Sunday, or follow the Detroit scoreboard to see whether they would face Pittsburgh or Boston.
Just as a horse will frequently break into an unanticipated gallop when it catches sight (or sniff) of the barn, the Blue Jackets apparently sensed that some R & R was only twenty minutes away -- if they played their game. They did just that in the third -- tightening up the defense, providing support in all three zones, and doing the little fundamental things that eventually pay off. Together, these elements put pressure on a Florida squad that suddenly seemed less interested in engaging and more interested in booking tee times.
Just 4:58 into the final period, Tomas Fleischmann was whistled for tripping against Matt Calvert. Once again, Columbus relied upon the power play to provide the margin of victory. Halfway through the power play, Ryan Johansen moved the puck from his position along the left half wall, up to James Wisniewski at the right point. Wisniewski faked the point shot, attracting Luongo's full attention, then zipped a perfect pass back to Johansen, who hand inched low to Luongo's right. Johansen went to his knee to deliver the one-timer, which cleanly beat Luongo for his 33rd goal of the season, and the margin of victory in this one.
True, three-quarters of the final period remained, but the Blue Jackets refused to surrender control. Bobrovsky made a few nice saves, and the Panthers predictably pulled Luongo for the extra attacker late. However, Columbus was not about to allow some late game heroics from the opposition in this one, and clamped down tight. In a fitting climax to the game, the Jackets fired the puck the length of the ice, squarely into the empty net as time expired. Fractionally too late to count on the scoreboard, but an apt metaphor for their ability to close this one out.
Savoring the Season
The Blue Jackets posted 93 points, 43 wins, 231 goals and a +15 goal differential in the course of the 82 game regular season -- all franchise records. It's impressive enough as is, but when you consider this is only Year 2 of the "brick by brick" campaign, that Columbus had to deal with more than their fair share of injuries -- including the loss of their top goaltender for a month, and that Nathan Horton could not contribute to the extent anticipated when the year began. There will be plenty of time to look back at the season and digest all of the fine points . . . when the season is over.
Fortunately, the days to come are not going to be filled with exit interviews and recriminations over what went wrong. For only the second time in franchise history, the Blue Jackets will be meaningful participants in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. More to the point, while they are certainly underdogs, they are not the sacrificial lambs that many might have thought. They have balanced scoring -- seven players with 15+ goals, six with 39 points or more, two with 50+ points and Johansen hitting the sixty point threshold. They have solid goaltending, and a quixotic blend of skill and brawn that tends to make clubs very competitive in the playoffs.
Nobody knows how things will go in the NHL's Second Season. However, one thing is certain -- you can't make an impact unless you get in the playoffs. The Blue Jackets have cleared that hurdle, and can now focus on the road ahead. That's just a beautiful thing to say. Stay tuned.