This one is so rich, so textured, with so many story lines - it almost transcends description. On the one hand, it encompassed a lot of the emotions that Blue Jackets fans have experienced since Day 1 -- hope, anticipation, disappointment . . . and ultimately despair. However, on this night, with this team, those same fans saw tenacity, drive . . . and vindication, the hallmarks of a new era in Blue Jackets hockey. That this all transpired in an eerie reprise of the numerology that governed the first three games of the series provides an almost metaphysical back story that simply defies reason.
The core facts, of course, are these: Columbus beat the Pittsburgh Penguins 4 - 3 in overtime, evening their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series at 2 - 2, and bringing the first Stanley Cup Playoff win to Nationwide Arena. Just these bare facts would be enough to provide a great story line, but in this case it barely scratches the surface of the intricacies involved, and of the entirely improbable nature of this result. Hang on, this one is not for the weak.
5:01 In Purgatory
Dan appropriately entitled his recap of Game 3 2:13 Of Pure Hell, because it was. If that was hell, then the span between the 6:09 and 11:10 marks of the first at least qualify as purgatory. However, I'm jumping ahead of myself.
There were some ominous signs that all was not well even before the game began. When watching warmups, I noticed Nick Schultz on the ice, and thought that he was drawing in for Dalton Prout to gain some veteran presence on the blue line. Not a bad call, I thought . . .until I saw Prout. Scanning the blue sweaters, I found that Ryan Murray was absent. An undisclosed injury would keep him from the line-up, meaning the Blue Jackets were arguably missing the two defenders most proficient in their own zone -- Tyutin & Murray. Not precisely what the doctor ordered when facing a club like Pittsburgh, who would undoubtedly come out blazing after their third period comeback in Game 3.
Adding insult to injury, the Blue Jackets came out flat -- a listless group that had no chemistry, timing or structure. Pittsburgh registered the first four shots of the game, all easily handled by Sergei Bobrovsky. The Blue Jackets responded with some credible shifts in the offensive zone, but squandered an equal number, and showed the nagging tendency toward nasty turnovers that tends to emerge when they are not moving their feet. They were a reaching, grabbing and sloppy hockey club.
Sometimes, even sloppy squads get a break, and it seemed that the Blue Jackets got just such a gift when Jussi Jokinen went off for hooking against Boone Jenner. Appearances can be deceiving, however, and the Hockey Gods had other ideas. As Columbus sought to gain possession high in the offensive zone, James Wisniewski could not gain control of the puck. Brendan Sutter could, however, and he proceeded to lead an odd-man rush down the middle of the ice, with Craig Adams on his right wing. As Ryan Johansen and Wisniewski struggled to get back, Sutter dumped the puck over to Adams at the top of the right circle. Bobrovsky came out and squared up, but could not get set as Adams parked a perfect shot high far corner. 1 - 0 Penguins. To the crowd's credit, this resulted in only a slightly diminished level of enthusiasm, as they were apparently taking solace in the fact that the team scoring the first goal has lost every game in this series.
Four minutes later, Derek MacKenzie was victimized by one of the more horrific calls of the series. Charging for the puck down low, MacKenzie shouldered Rob Scuderi aside to gain possession. Up went the arm of the man with the orange band on his sleeve -- Dan O'Halloran in this case -- and MacKenzie was off for roughing. During an animated conversation between player and referee en route to the box, O'Halloran pantomimed an elbow throw, which never occurred. In any event, it took the Penguins precisely four seconds to convert. Stop me if you've heard this before, but a Pittsburgh player (Chris Kunitz in this case) planted himself squarely in front of Bobrovsky, with stick and blade parallel to the ice. A Penguins defenseman (Matt Niskanen here) fires a shot from the right point, which Kunitz deflects past a helpless Bobrovsky. 2 - 0. A bit less noise from the crowd. After all, a two goal lead is the most dangerous one in hockey. Right?
The Blue Jackets tenure in purgatory would last another 33 seconds. Evgeni Malkin brought the puck down the right wing, circled behind the net, and when he emerged on the left side, he tried to find Jussi Jokinen in the middle. The puck drifted away, down low to Bobrovsky's left. A flock of Blue Jackets were in the vicinity, but could not find the will to move their feet. James Neal, however, was more than willing to accept the gift of the waiting puck, and he zipped a one-timer past Bobrovsky to put the Penguins up by a field goal. At this point, you could have heard a pin drop in the arena. On the NBC broadcast, Pierre McGuire made the following observation:
The spotlight is too bright, and they're frozen it it. They haven't been able to put the previous game behind them.
Unfortunately, that seemed like an entirely plausible explanation at the time. Columbus fans have been here before, of course, and in the past might have surrendered to that tense silence that bears witness to the unspoken belief that this one was about to tip toward the truly ugly. This crowd, this night, refused to do that. Both team and fans took Todd Richards' strategic timeout to collect themselves, and when play resumed, the Fifth Line was in full voice.
At the 15:15 mark, James Neal went off for interference against Wisniewski, and the Blue Jackets had a prime chance to chip away at the Penguins' lead. With under a minute left in the power play, Jack Johnson brought the puck behind the net to the right point. He moved it across to Wisniewski on the left, who quickly found Mark Letestu between the circles. Letestu let go with a wrister that did not have full velocity. Boone Jenner, however, was parked directly in front of Marc-Andre Fleury, and in the precise path of the shot. He flicked his wrists, apparently catching the puck on the shaft, lifting it in a lazy arc over his head, over Fleury's head, and onto the blue ice behind him. Before Fleury could react, it was in the net, and the gap was narrowed. Finally, a bounce went the Blue Jackets' way.
The balance of the period went by without incident, and as the horn blew, you could not help but harken back to earlier games in the series. Just as Pittsburgh badly outshot Columbus in the first in Game 3, yet trailed by two goals, the Blue Jackets outshot the Penguins 14-11 here, and similarly trailed by two goals. Looking at the scoreboard showed the most telling stat: 3 - 1. The dreaded score, from which no team in this series can recover. In each of the first three, a team had a 3-1 lead at some point in the proceedings, and ended up losing, 4-3. So, in the twisted logical world that only a sports fan can occupy, this meant that the Blue Jackets had to win 4-3, didn't it?
Glimmers of Hope
As improbable as it might sound, the Blue Jackets completely dominated the second period. They outshot Pittsburgh 18-6 during the period, and the time of possession in the offensive zone was at least that lopsided. It what was undoubtedly a frank and open -- but one-sided -- communication between coach and players during the intermission, the Blue Jackets coincidentally found their legs. They skated, and skated, while it was the Penguins who seemed to be reaching and grabbing. If anything, the Blue Jackets might have been guilty of some over-passing.
To his credit, Fleury was solid during this period. But for his efforts -- and some timely clears by his defense -- the Blue Jackets might have taken control on the scoreboard, as well as the stat sheets. They did not go away entirely unrewarded, however. With 8:07 left in the period, Lee Stempniak took a double minor for high sticking Nick Schultz. In the ensuing power play, the Blue Jackets had some prime opportunities, including some juicy rebounds, but could not capitalize. However, with just 17 seconds left in the first half of the double minor, Brandon Sutter obligingly parked the puck in the net from the defensive zone, earning two minutes to feel shame in the box for delay of game. That provided 2:17 of 5-on-3 hockey, and the Blue Jackets did not disappoint -- cashing in just 34 seconds later. Carefully working the puck around the perimeter, Brandon Dubinsky took the puck low to Fleury's left. Artem Anisimov had established position at the edge of the crease, stick on the ice. Dubinsky found him with a quick flick, and the puck crept past Fleury to his right. Ryan Johansen was parked at the right post, and obligingly helped the puck finish its journey. 3-2.
At this point, the crowd was more than fully engaged, with those seated between the goal lines now standing most of the time. The Blue Jackets could not convert again during the period, but similarly allowed no prolonged assaults by the Penguins. Any forays into the offensive end were stuffed by Bobrovsky, and the defensive corps was more responsible with the puck. When the horn sounded, the Blue Jackets left to a deafening ovation. One suspects that the one-way conversation this break occurred in the Pittsburgh locker room.
Emerging from their locker room, the Penguins were acutely aware that their walk in the park had suddenly become a forced march, and that bringing this one home would involve serious. work. Their play was more structured and defined, and they had their share of opportunities early on. For their part, the Blue Jackets refused to be intimidated, and continued to exert offensive pressure. They also took the neutral zone as their own, permitting precious few entries to the Penguins, who thrive on timing and precision.
While the physical game was present in the third, it was not as pronounced as in the first 40 minutes, with both teams being aware that one mistake might make the difference. While the clubs accounted for 10 penalties in the first two periods, only one arose in the third -- a marginal tripping call against James Wisniewski, which was dispatched with alacrity by the PK unit. Further supporting the tightness of the play was the fact that only 16 shots were placed on net during the period, with Columbus holding a 9-7 edge.
Though the Blue Jackets managed only nine official shots, there were some agonizingly close chances. A number of pucks went just wide, or streamed across the crease. With a few minutes left, Matt Calvert shed two defenders at the blue line and went in with speed, but his wrister clanked off the crossbar. At this point, everyone was standing full time.
With just over a minute left in regulation, Bobrovsky exited stage left for the extra attacker, and the ensuing sequence of events will forever be etched into the memories of Blue Jackets fans. Jack Johnson accepted the puck along the left-hand boards at the red line, and backhanded it off the glass and behind the net. Cam Atkinson and Ryan Johansen streaked along parallel paths, on either side of the net, heading for the puck. In the meantime, Fleury, apparently under the impression that he was Patrick Roy, inexplicably left the blue paint and circled behind the net after the puck. He could not control it against the dual onslaught of Atkinson and Johansen, and Johansen took possession against the boards. In the meantime, Dubinsky caught the entire Penguins defense watching the puck, and snuck to the inside edge of the right face-off circle. Johansen found him in stride, and Dubinsky threaded the puck through a couple of defenders, and into the back of the net, with just 24 seconds left in regulation. Tie game, 3 - 3, and absolute bedlam in the stands. If you thought Game 3 was loud, it could not hold a candle to this one. After dispatching the remaining seconds, Nationwide Arena literally shook as the club filed back to the room. Could the unthinkable happen?
As it turns out, Nick Foligno was premeditating the unthinkable. Multiple sources, including the Dispatch and NHL Network reported that Foligno "called his shot" in the locker room, asking the guys if they would mind if he went ahead and took care of business. Take care of business he did, in a way that will again be recalled in vivid detail by the 18,970 in attendance.
The Blue Jackets came out with all of the energy they derived from Dubinsky's last second heroics. Allowing Pittsburgh a single offensive attack sequence, during which they generated a single shot, the Blue Jackets took over. They put four shots on goal before the winning sequence, and clearly carried the play. Pittsburgh gained possession and entered the zone, with Olli Maatta taking the puck at the right point. R. J. Umberger went down on the ice to block the attempted point shot, and the puck moved to Foligno, who fired a pass to Wisniewski in the neutral zone. Wisniewski had the puck carom off his stick, and he belly-flopped forward to keep the puck in play. That ploy worked, as the puck bounced back to Umberger in the neutral zone. Heading to his right, he looped a backhand pass to Foligno coming down the left. The puck was bouncing a bit as he entered the zone, but he fired a knuckler just as the puck reached the apex of the Stanley Cup logo on the ice. That was either fortuitous or prophetic, as the puck dipped below Fleury's glove, and found the gap between glove and pad, settling firmly into the back of the net. Miracle complete. Series even. First ever playoff win at Nationwide, and absolute pandemonium in the stands.
I've seen a lot of big sporting events in my life, but I'm not sure I've ever seen one that combined the emotional extremes and improbable turns that this one did. THIS is why the Stanley Cup Playoffs are the Greatest Show on Earth . . . with all due apologies to Messrs. Barnum & Bailey. Nationwide Arena has certainly never seen a bigger hockey moment, and the fact that this group of young, untested players could pull off something of this magnitude, under the scrutiny and pressure of the Stanley Cup spotlight . . . well, it's just damn impressive.
I'm not going to sully this moment by micro-analyzing the performances or the issues. A couple of interesting notes, however. First, the Blue Jackets got the memo about putting pucks at Fleury-- 46 shots on goal, 20 blocked and 10 missed, for a total of 76 pucks fired in anger. That contrasts with 47 (25-11-11) for Pittsburgh. Secondly, how can you possible account for the eerie, borderline supernatural similarities between the first four games in this series. The first scoring team loses all four. In all four, the losing team had a 3 -1 lead. A 4-3 final score in all of them. Just plain bizarre. By the way, this was the first time in NHL history that all four games have involved a comeback of two or more goals for the winning team. Fun facts to know and tell.
The impacts of this one are tough to overstate. With the positive attention in the national media, and in the immediate Columbus area, nothing but good can result. In terms of the more immediate concerns, it evens the series and guarantees Game 6 at Nationwide next Monday. That's good for the club, the fans and the community. As the players have said, they are in this to win, not to make a good showing. The good showing is already in the books, and the sights are getting higher by the day.
Pittsburgh is an experienced club, and can be expected to handle this as professionals do. But, that being said, this one has to really sting. With 72 hours to mull over it, you never know how clubs will react. More to the point, how will Mr. Fleury react? The game winner was a softie, and he'll be reading about it for the next three days. He just might hear that crowd yelling "FLEU-RY" for a long time.
To wrap it up, let me go once again to the words of Pierre McGuire:
We have a series . . .In Pittsburgh the thing is called "Buckle Up for the Playoffs." They better buckle up now, because Columbus is coming down the highway with a whole lot of speed.
Thanks Pierre, I couldn't have said it better myself.
Game 5 Saturday. Stay tuned.